6.2 Earth System Prediction and Predictability: A Regional Example for the Gulf of Mexico (Invited Presentation)

Tuesday, 9 January 2018: 2:00 PM
Room 4ABC (ACC) (Austin, Texas)
Antonio Busalacchi, University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), Boulder, MA

In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon explosion and fire caused the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history, which had significant impacts on the Gulf environment and people. As part of legal settlements with the companies involved, the federal government asked the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to establish a new program to fund and conduct activities to enhance oil system safety, human health, and environmental resources in the Gulf of Mexico and other U.S. outer continental shelf regions that support oil and gas production. Over its 30-year duration, the newly formed Gulf Research Program works to enhance oil system safety and the protection of human health and the environment in the Gulf of Mexico and other U.S. outer continental shelf areas by seeking to improve understanding of the region’s interconnecting human, environmental, and energy systems and fostering application of these insights to benefit Gulf communities, ecosystems, and the Nation.

Approximately 50% of the world’s human population currently lives within 100 km of a coastline. As population density and economic activity in the coastal zone are projected to increase, there is increasing interest in forecasting impacts of anthropogenic activities, land use land cover changes and climate on regional watersheds and their integrated effect on the water quality and ecosystem services, especially in a Regional Earth System Prediction framework. Watersheds and regional seas serve to integrate across the influences of a vast range of multiple stressors. For example, human land use in coastal watersheds has increased nutrient and sediment loads, resulting in regional degradation of water quality and habitats. Therefore, concentrations and loads of nutrients and sediments are now being incorporated into forecasting tools and watershed models. An increasing body of work now shows that regional nutrient fluxes are also rapidly increasing in many streams and rivers globally. In the U.S., urbanization, agriculture, deforestation, and other anthropogenic activities have substantially increased fluxes of nutrients in major rivers and estuaries. These elevated fluxes can have important consequences for regional water quality, and ecosystem processes especially against the backdrop of climate change.

The Gulf of Mexico is a perfect example of a region under the influence of multiple stressors across the physical, natural, and human coupled systems. The region is subject to the effects of the Loop Current in the Gulf, eddy dynamics, severe storms, oil spills, harmful algal blooms, coastal wetland loss, nutrient loading from the Mississippi, hypoxic dead zones, and the boom and bust cycles of heavy industry, to name a few.

The role of these coastal habitats in protecting people, their properties, and the built infrastructure can hardly be overemphasized. Yet, strategies for reducing human impacts on the water quality and the habitats suffer from a lack of comprehensive and skillful predictive tools that can generate usable and useful information, and what-if scenarios for management and policy decisions. The Gulf of Mexico will experience increasing climate and environmental change over the next 50 years, exceeding the scope of natural variability. A paramount question facing decision makers in the region is how to prepare and adapt to this certainty of change in the next half century. A regional Earth System Prediction approach has the potential to provide integrated Earth System analyses and prediction capabilities for the Gulf of Mexico basin with products designed to address user needs at time scales from days to decadal periods. Advance understanding of the Gulf of Mexico region as a dynamic system with complex, interconnecting human and environmental systems, functions, and processes to inform the protection and restoration of ecosystem services is a strategic goal of the Gulf Research Program. This presentation will address the challenges and opportunities of developing a regional Earth System Prediction capability over the 30-year lifetime of the Gulf Research Program.

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