WeatherZine #27


Who Lives and Who Dies

Roger A. Pielke, Jr.
Environmental and Societal Impacts Group

"Policy decisions determine who lives and who dies." Policy analysts sometimes use such grave imagery to emphasize that decision makers are faced with choices that actually matter in a profound way in people's lives. In the policy literature you'll see this sort of imagery in discussions of health policy. You probably won't see it in discussions of environmental observational systems for scientific research and operations, but you should.

Observational data is to science what air is to breathing. For example, daily weather forecasts depend critically upon timely and reliable observational data that are assimilated into forecast models. The growing industry of "weather derivatives" is based upon a reliable historical record of observations and continued data collection. For a wide spectrum of research and applications, observational systems collect data about the environment, i.e., atmosphere, oceans, land, sun, ecosystems, social systems, etc. (see, e.g., NASA's Global Change Master Directory). These data are collected from space, the earth's surface, and places in between (e.g., aircraft observations). Because of the important role played by data in the environmental sciences, just about every scientific report you will come across, e.g., from the National Research Council, will include a passionate call for more and better observations.

As a result, a tremendous amount of resources are devoted to collecting observations. A comprehensive accounting of environmental observation programs and their budgets is not readily available. However, we can piece together a ballpark estimate. According to a 1997 estimate by Charles Kennel and colleagues, about $30 billion (not-inflation adjusted) was spent in the 1990s on non-military, space-based observations (Kennel, and Earth Observations From Space). For the plethora of in situ observational programs (see, e.g., the comprehensive list at NASA's Global Change Master Directory) it is not unreasonable, and is likely conservative, to suggest a comparable total. Thus, an order of magnitude estimate of annual resources devoted to environmental observations is $10 billion. This neglects the additional resources needed for processing, archiving, and using the data.

Given the significant resources devoted to observations and the constant demands for more resources, a number of questions naturally arise. Is the current mix of observational platforms effective? With respect to what criteria should "effectiveness" be measured? Given the demands of scientists for even more data, what additional resources should be devoted to observations? Should these demands for new information be traded off against present capabilities? What new areas hold the greatest promise for benefits to environmental decision-making? The scientific and policy communities currently have no systematic mechanism to answer such questions, meaning that observations policy is determined on an ad hoc, political basis.

Here is a practical example. The Tropical Rainfall Measurement Mission (TRMM, pronounced "Trim" (see TRMM web site), is a NASA satellite that, as its name suggests, collects data from space on tropical precipitation. These data have proven useful in improving predictions of rainfall (see NASA News Archive). The TRMM satellite is nearing the end of its orbital life, and NASA must decide how to terminate it (compare January 14, 2000 news item, and June 4, 2000 news item). NASA has two choices. It can let the satellite run out of fuel and reenter the atmosphere in an uncontrolled fashion, or it can maneuver the satellite to a controlled reentry. Because the second scenario involves using TRMM's finite fuel supply to control the reentry, it would mean that the satellite would be collecting data for about three years less than if NASA simply let it run out of gas.

The decision on how best to de-orbit TRMM has some interesting consequences (see United Nations report). On the one hand, if TRMM reenters in an uncontrolled fashion, it could land in a populated area, causing damage (see Lost in Space) or even casualties (see Reentry FAQ). In addition to these risks, NASA would also undoubtedly suffer public criticism and perhaps political ramifications. On the other hand, if TRMM is deorbited in a controlled fashion, three years of data transmission would be lost. If in fact these data are necessary for improved operational forecasts, then forecasts will be degraded as a result of the data's absence. Consequently, there is a risk that degraded forecasts will themselves lead to otherwise preventable damage or casualties. In a very tangible sense, then, the decision about how and when to deorbit TRMM is about who lives and who dies.

NASA has in place means to estimate the risk of casualties of deorbiting satellites (NASA Safety Standard). For TRMM, it was recently estimated that there would be a casualty risk of 1 in 2500 for an uncontrolled reentry. One criterion for allowing TRMM to remain in orbit for three additional years would be whether its absence would create a casualty risk greater than 1 in 2500. However, NASA does not have a means to estimate the risks of not having the TRMM data in the forecast process.

The TRMM satellite is one example of a more general problem that plagues the universe of environmental observations: decision makers lack knowledge necessary to prioritize observational programs and plans according to their contributions to science and society. Absent such information, observational decisions are often made on an ad hoc or even political basis. One result is that unhealthy competition for scarce resources develops: scientists compete with other scientists (e.g., weather versus climate), research vies with operations (e.g., NASA versus NOAA), and various platform advocates coalesce into warring "tribes" (e.g., satellite versus in situ). Although the connections between observational decision-making and "who lives and who dies" usually seem far removed, the TRMM example indicates that such decisions can have profound implications.

Decision makers would benefit from an ongoing effort devoted to the "technology assessment of observing systems" that would seek to evaluate the broad costs and benefits of alternative observing strategies for both science and society (for examples of such assessments in a wide range of science and technology areas see The OTA Legacy). A framework for such an effort was developed by the US Weather Research Program for weather observations (PDT #7), and easily could be extended to other observational contexts.

Decision makers lack such knowledge in part because Congress terminated its own Office of Technology Assessment in the early 1990s (see Filling the Policy Vacuum Created by OTA's Demise, and The Restless Mummy). This means that it is necessary for the observational community itself to provide decision makers with knowledge of the costs and benefits of alternative observational strategies (compare OTA Publications). The alternative is a continued cacophony of voices pleading for ever more observations, potentially leading decision makers to conclude that the scientific community is but another special interest looking for its piece of the pie (see Six Heretical Notions About Weather Policy). The availability of scientifically rigorous knowledge related to who lives and who dies as a consequence of alternative observational strategies would be one way to get decision makers' attention and to focus science on important matters of societal benefit.

— Roger A. Pielke, Jr.
Environmental and Societal Impacts Group
National Center for Atmospheric Research


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