Ninth AMS Presidential Forum: Urban Weather and Climate—Now and the Future


Urban Weather and Climate Services: Meeting the Challenges of Growing Cities and a Changing Climate

Mary Glackin, DOC/NOAA, Washington, DC

Society is urbanizing, creating new demand for innovative and targeted weather and climate services. For the first time in history, the number of city dwellers exceeds the world's rural population. Urban populations are expected to double in Africa and Asia over the next 30 years, adding 1.7 billion people to their cities, more than the current population of the United States and China combined. According to the most recent US Bureau of Census count (2000), approximately 80% of the U.S. population lives in urban areas. More than half of the U.S. population now lives within 50 miles of a coast.

The challenges of city management and infrastructure planning are many, requiring the provision of water, flood control, waste disposal, transportation, and power services; and ensuring the protection of health, air, and water quality. Climate change and weather extremes make these challenges increasingly complex but, in some cases, also present opportunities to contribute to a climate solution. The government sector in cooperation with academia and the private sector will play an increasingly critical role in meeting these challenges.

The weather and climate enterprise should play a unique role in meeting the challenges and opportunities in urban areas. The government sector, including NOAA, has a special responsibility to inform public policy, support public safety, and help society manage environmental risks of all kinds. It does this by enacting policies and programs that provide information, resources, tools, and incentives that are responsive to the needs of decision makers. The academic sector is likely to build on its strong traditional roles of furthering our understanding of the science and educating future leaders to meet these greater challenges. Their presence in or near urban settings will make them trusted advisors to decision makers, and their composition will make them a natural place to build multi-disciplinary teams required to address the challenges. The private sector's capacity to contribute to solutions continues to grow as illustrated by the proliferation of private observing networks. Particularly for urban areas with concentrated commerce and industry, the demands for their services will continue to grow. The following paragraphs illustrate ways the government sector - with its partners - is working to contribute to solutions that help cities deal with the many impacts of a changing climate and growing populations.

The modeling community has long recognized the need to develop predictions on time and space scales relevant to decision makers, but only now have science and computer technology progressed to the stage where such predictions are becoming feasible. Very fine space and time scale atmospheric models are supporting decision making, particularly for disaster management. Efforts are now underway at federal laboratories and academic institutions in this country and elsewhere to model the evolution of the climate system over the next several decades at regional scales. Downscaling such model output to urban scales remains a research challenge, especially because cities create their own micro-climates. Additional complications arise from the possibility that climate change will strengthen urban heat island effects and increase surface run-off, so feedbacks between the urban and larger regional environments will need to be accounted for. Also, the consequences of alternative energy sources, such as wide spread solar energy, is not understood. These problems are becoming tractable and one can envision a not-so-distant future when predictions of evolving climate conditions at scales relevant to urban planning are available.

Adapting to weather and climate impacts is most effective when tied to already-identified planning priorities and actions. Urban areas provide an excellent opportunity for integrating climate solutions into near-term actions as they develop and maintain much of the physical and economic infrastructure in a given locale. Changes in the ways that cities plan for and protect infrastructure can make urban areas more resilient to climate and weather extremes, and reduce their contribution to greenhouse gas pollution. Solutions need to have what some call a “win, win, win” character. For example, our cities need to use energy more efficiently, encourage healthy lifestyles, and reduce vulnerabilities to both social and environmental events. Government agencies such as NOAA can assist cities in these efforts by providing short-term predictions needed for response and recovery from high-impact events, seasonal predictions to support more effective resource management investments, and decadal and longer predictions to support long-term decisions about infrastructure. Programs such as Storm Ready help prepare communities by providing emergency managers with information and safety skills needed to save lives and property. NOAA with its partners has been investigating ways to increase the resiliency of coastal population centers taking into account the expected impacts of climate change and natural hazards.

Urban planners and city managers need a trusted source for environmental information, and, in turn, that source needs to understand the challenges confronting the decision maker and his or her decision process. It is important to incorporate knowledge from both the natural and social sciences, ranging from the economic impacts of decisions to the behavioral response to risk, to understand the full dimensions of these problems and to help identify viable solutions. These principles have guided NOAA's efforts with its Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments. For example, the Climate Assessment for the Southwest is focused on the challenge of urban water in the face of climate variability and change. Further efforts will be required to engage policy makers to ensure our research and services remain relevant and contribute to our cities using resources more efficiently and reducing their vulnerability to environmental stresses.

Urban areas are at the forefront of efforts to grapple with potential future changes in weather extremes and climate. A growing demand for better information and increased preparedness have led to the development of new partnerships between service providers and municipalities, but more integration is needed. The weather and climate community has a long history of cooperation from local to global scale. We need to expand on this history of cooperation within our community to encourage many institutions to work together effectively to solve the complex challenges our cities, coasts and our society face.

wrf recording  Recorded presentation

Session 1, Urban Weather and Climate: Now and the Future
Monday, 12 January 2009, 8:30 AM-10:15 AM, Ballroom ABC

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