Routine climate data – going, going, gone?

by Chris Holloway

I was surprised to hear recently that the US Department of Energy (DOE) is closing all three of their Tropical Western Pacific (TWP) Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) sites within the next year.  These well-instrumented sites, located at Nauru, Manus, and Darwin and dating from the late 1990s, provide three of the few high-quality in situ data records of surface properties, cloud and radiation fields, and atmospheric conditions aloft for tropical oceanic regions.  The decision was the result of budget constraints and changing priorities at the DOE, which is planning to shift the focus of ARM to enhanced supersites in the central US and the North Slope of Alaska (along with mobile supersites to accompany temporary field campaigns).  The change has caught many in the tropical climate community by surprise: just last year, Long et al. (2013) reviewed a decade of scientific research using data from the TWP sites and predicted a bright future for them.  Holloway et al. (2014), which compiled a series of recommendations from the UK atmospheric science community about ways to improve our understanding and modelling of atmospheric convection, used the success of ARM sites (including the TWP sites) as motivation for proposing a UK fixed (or mobile) supersite.

I may be biased in my support for the Tropical Western Pacific sites, since a large part of my PhD dissertation was based on data from the Nauru site.  I recognise that budgets are limited, and I’m not arguing that the DOE was wrong to shift their resources to locations and programmes that they see as being closer to their national and scientific interests.  To their credit, ARM left significant infrastructure in place at the TWP sites and encouraged other nations to take up the cause, but none came forward (even Australia, which is a relatively rich country in the region, will so far commit only to maintaining some limited instrumentation, and the ability to host future field campaigns, at Darwin, the site within their territory).  But this example does illustrate what I (and many others) see as a major problem for climate science: long-term climate records, crucial for understanding climate variability and change, depend on vulnerable short-term funding from individual countries.

There are numerous examples of important climate data records becoming vulnerable to budget cuts.  The Scripps group behind the famous “Keeling curve”, which reveals increasing CO2 resulting from human fossil fuel use since 1958, has been struggling to secure funding for continued measurements.  Weather forecasting centres are facing an imminent gap in satellite data as older satellites reach the ends of their lifetimes without being replaced (and this will also lead to degradation of model reanalyses which are key sources of climate data).  Rainfall gauge data is declining rapidly in many parts of the world, hampering efforts to understand variability in flooding and droughts and how this might change in the future.  The Tropical Atmosphere Ocean (TAO) buoy array, which has allowed 30 years of monitoring of the largest source of interannual climate variability on Earth, El Niño – Southern Oscillation (ENSO), is starting to fail due to lack of maintenance.  These “routine” data sources may be less exciting than intensive temporary field campaigns or cutting-edge instruments providing new kinds of observations, but they are the bedrock of our understanding of climate.

In the coming decades computers will grow more powerful, and our understanding of the physical processes governing weather and climate will increase, allowing us to build better models and better theories of climate.  However, future climate scientists will never be able to travel back in time and collect long-term, continuous, consistent climate data.  The international community should provide reliable long-term funding for high-quality global observations, with appropriate overlap between old instruments and their replacements to provide for calibration and consistency.  Some good news on this front, the Sentinel series of satellite climate missions described in a recent entry of this blog, shows that governments and international agencies are trying to solve these problems, but much still needs to be done.  The future of climate science depends on it.

References

Holloway, C. E., and Coauthors, 2014. Understanding and representing atmospheric convection across scales: recommendations from the meeting held at Dartington Hall, Devon, UK, 28–30 January 2013. Atmosph. Sci. Lett..  doi: 10.1002/asl2.508 Open Access here.

Long, C. N., and Coauthors, 2013. ARM Research In The Equatorial Western Pacific: A Decade And Counting. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 94, 695–708. Open Access here.

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