Q and A With Eileen Shea: July/August 2010

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By Glen Andersen

Eileen Shea is the chief of the Climate Services Division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Climatic Data Center.

She has directed the agency's Integrated Data and Environmental Applications Center in Honolulu since 2005. The center works on regional and global observation systems for climate data, develops technology to improve measurements and forecasts, and provides education and outreach.

She spoke with State Legislatures about the steps the agency is taking to help states understand and adapt to climate change.

STATE LEGISLATURES: What is NOAA doing or going to do to help states and regions with regards to adaptation?

EILEEN SHEA: We are the world’s data repository for weather and climate data for the U.S. and for the world. NOAA is providing information to states on changing climate conditions which can inform them about adaption needs. NOAA provides the baseline data against which we determine climate change, such as sea level, storms, temperature and rainfall.
An emergency manager in South Carolina who is dealing with periodic flooding will know when flooding is more common, but he can look at our data to determine if there are changes, since NOAA provides information on parameters to help integrate data to predict inundation events. How will he change his response if he notices levels are increasing? NOAA monitors current activities and models future changes utilizing its geophysical fluid laboratory, NASA, The National Center for Atmospheric Research, modeling labs in Princeton, New Jersey.

SL: What role will the Climate Service play?

SHEA: The NOAA Climate Service will provide someone in a given place with information relevant to decisions they need to make. For example, a hydropower dam manager gets outlooks from NOAA with regard to making year-to-year and season-to-season decisions. If the manager wishes to build another dam, they are interested in long-term precipitation patterns. Do we need a higher capacity dam if precipitation rates change? What does climate change mean if we’re sending water out of a dam to provide enough downstream water all year?

This is a critical issue in the Southwest. Precipitation information is also important to water resource managers and the agricultural industry. Is water falling in short duration, extreme rainfall events? Will we see water coming in heavy rainfall events, patterns of storms? With regard to snowpack, does more fall as rain than snow so there is less runoff over snowmelt season? A combination of changes—reduction in rainfall and increase in temperature—leads to decreased soil moisture which causes serious issues for agriculture, forestry, water management and other sectors.

SL: How will NOAA work to improve adaptation information?

SHEA: Historically we’ve had a tendency to look at the global scale. If we are to be successful we need to model changes at the scale at which people are making decisions. A dam manager needs specific regional information. We don’t have the model capability right now and are investing in developing that. We’ve learned how we need to build trust and credibility. How do people make decisions—frame products in a way that is useful for what people actually use. We’ll presents information on many sources at climate.gov, including raw data and examples of how climate information is being used. We’re taking user centric prospective—we are not basing this just on what a scientist develops, but designing what we develop based on our requests for information.

Glen Andersen tracks climate change issues for NCSL.