Our atmosphere is central to life itself. Climate and weather nourish
our crops, enhance our recreation, sustain our economy. At their most
ferocious they can also be bearers of death and destruction:
hurricanes, tornadoes, crippling floods, devastating droughts, and
paralyzing snowstorms. Ice storms and fog ground aircraft, heat waves
lead to power blackouts, floods immerse entire towns, blizzards bring
day-to-day commerce to a halt. Virtually every U.S. citizen and every
industry are affected by the best and worst of weather and climate:
health, recreation, transportation, telecommunications, construction,
energy, agriculture, even military operations. A productive partnership
among the federal government, the universities, and the private sector
has led to significant progress in the science of weather and climate,
and much more can be done. The more we understand atmospheric forces
and phenomena, the more we can predict them, benefit from them, and
mitigate their ill effects.
We're already doing a lot
The last decade has seen major improvements in observing and computing
technology, in weather and climate predictions, and in the scientific
understanding that underlies these forecasts. Since the mid-1980s, the
U.S. National Weather Service has embarked on an ambitious
modernization program to take full advantage of advances in radars,
satellites, wind profilers, and other state-of-the-art observing
systems. Today, 48-hour predictions are as accurate as 12- to 24-hour
forecasts were 20 years ago. We can plan our day and week around what
the television and radio tell us the weather will be. American
businesses make economic decisions based on reliable weather
information. Scientists have begun to issue experimental climate
forecasts for seasons to more than a year ahead.
Better understanding of weather and climate is
Saving lives and property
Death tolls from lightning, tornadoes,
and hurricanes have decreased steadily.
Hurricane predictions are more accurate than ever before, thanks to
satellite observations, reconnaissance aircraft, high-speed computers,
forecast models, and better scientific understanding of what propels
these monster storms. With increasing coastal development such
forecasts are more critical than ever.
Doppler radars have greatly improved tornado warnings to a lead time of
nearly ten minutes, more than double what was achieved with older
Enhancing the economy
We are beginning to understand
ocean-atmosphere interactions well enough to issue experimental
seasonal and annual forecasts that could help agriculture and other
interests protect against disruptive El Nino cycles of heavy rain and
drought. Improved weather and climate
information benefits the U.S. economy in many ways, from helping the
energy industry anticipate demand for heating fuel to guiding the food
industry in predicting how weather will affect crop production.
Helping society cope with environmental concerns
Climate is changing, and evidence is
mounting to show that global warming from human influences is now
discernible. Understanding the causes of
ozone depletion has led to an effective international response that
promises to protect the ozone layer, through cooperation among
scientists, policy makers, industry, and the public. We are now better able to forecast air quality
and are working to improve the quality of our air in the future.
But weather and climate continue to disrupt our lives and our economy
The 1990s have already seen as much
hurricane damage as the combined total of the 1970s and 1980s (even
after adjusting for inflation). Heat
waves kill an average of 1,000 people a year in the United States and
can lead to widespread power disruptions.
Flood-related damages have risen steadily over the past three decades,
from an annual average of about $2 billion to about $3.5 billion (in
1995 dollars). The 1993 Mississippi flood alone cost $15-20 billion and
killed 48 people. Eighty percent of the
emergencies declared by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
in the last decade have been weather related. Many other longer-term
disasters, such as ex-tended droughts, are climate related. Both FEMA
and the Red Cross have seen a marked increase in the number and cost of
disasters since 1989, and 1996 promises to be one of the costliest
As population continues to grow, and with it people's demand for
resources, society will become increasingly sensitive to climate and
weather events. The observations needed for accurate weather
forecasting today are the key to understanding climate changes in the
Much more needs to be done
The natural system that propels the weather and creates the climate is
intricately entwined. As well as the atmosphere, it includes the sun,
space, the oceans, lakes and rivers, ice sheets, land, and living
organisms. This complex natural system requires a corresponding
scientific, educational, and technological system to study, observe,
predict its behavior. Like a hospital equipped with laboratories,
ambulances, monitoring technology, and expertise at communicating with
patients, our weather and climate "health system" must include
comparable components: research labs, observing technology, computers,
prediction models, forecasting skill, and a communications system to
commerce and the public that can make advisories of all kinds
effective. The federal government, the universities, public and
commercial laboratories, private weather forecasting companies, and the
media all are essential parts of this interwoven system. At its heart
are the observations, technology, central guidance, forecasting, and
warning services that the federal government provides; none of the
other sectors could function without this support.
We must maintain and improve this life-support system, and to do so we need
1. Continuous modernization of the observing and forecasting sys-tem vital to delivering our weather, water, and climate prediction services to the public.
2. Support for the research and technology development needed to improve our observations and predictions of weather and climate.
3. Enhanced education and training to main-tain our high-quality research and technology and insure that U.S. citizens fully benefit from their weather and climate investments.
Recent Major Weather and Climate Disasters and Their Impacts
Sources: NOAA National Climatic Data Center; *Changnon et al., AMS Bulletin, July 1996.
- Hurricane Fran. September 1996. North Carolina and Virginia. Preliminary estimated damage/costs over $2 billion; 36 deaths.
- Severe drought. Fall 1995 through summer 1996. Southern Plains: Texas and Oklahoma most severely affected. Damage/costs over $4 billion to date.
- Blizzard/flooding. January 1996. Severe snowstorm over Appalachians, Mid-Atlantic states, and Northeast, followed by severe flooding. Damage/costs approx. $3 billion; 187 deaths.
- Hurricane Opal. October 1995. Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Carolinas. Damage/costs over $3 billion; 27 deaths.
- Heat wave. July 1995. Central U.S. 830 deaths, 525 of them in Chicago.*
- Torrential storms/flooding. May 1995. Rain/hailstorms across Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi. Damage/costs approx. $5-6 billion; 27 deaths.
- Flooding from frequent winter storms. January-March 1995. California. Damage/ costs over $3 billion; 27 deaths.
- Ice storm. February 1994. Texas to Virginia. Damage/costs approx. $3 billion; 9 deaths.
- Wildfires. Fall 1993. California. Damage/costs approx. $1 billion; 4 deaths.
- Flooding. Summer 1993. Midwest, notably Mississippi basin. Damage/costs $15-20 billion; 48 deaths.
The American Meteorological Society (AMS) is a scientific and
professional society of more than 11,000 members from the United States
and over 100 foreign countries. Interdisciplinary in its scope, the AMS
actively promotes the development and dissemination of information on
the atmospheric and related oceanic and hydrologic sciences.|
The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) is a
consortium of over 60 North American universities offering Ph.D.s in
the atmospheric or related sciences and includes scores of
international and academic affiliate institutions. UCAR manages the
National Center for Atmospheric Research and a number of other programs
that support the atmospheric and related sciences.|
Cover: Lightning photo © Warren Faidley/Weatherstock|
Page 2: Photo © David Lane/The Palm Beach Post
Brochure design by Liesel Brunson,
NCAR Image & Design Services
Printed by March Press, Boulder, Colorado.
This document was printed with soy inks on recycled paper.
© 1996, University Corporation for Atmospheric Research and American Meteorological Society.
Other UCAR publications
Prepared for the web by Jacque Marshall
Last revised: Mon Apr 17 15:51:48 MDT 2000