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Winter 2001


How can the science community respond to 11 September?

As I began thinking about possible President's Corner topics for this issue, I wondered whether or not to even mention the terrible events of 11 September 2001 in New York City, Washington, D.C., and the countryside of Pennsylvania. After all, for many weeks the media has been preoccupied with this event—a terror that caused millions of people to realize, as they watched the horror unfold in real time on that beautiful early autumn morning, that the world had changed forever and their lives, security, and freedom would never be the same. However, the more I thought the more I came to the conclusion that I should not ignore this event, how it might affect science and education in this country, and how science and education—including the atmospheric and related sciences—can help the nation and the free world prepare for the months and years ahead.

I start with some wise remarks from others:

The methods and mechanisms of warfare have altered radically in recent times, and they will alter still further in the future. The country is singularly fitted, by reason of the ingenuity of its people, the knowledge and skill of its scientists, the flexibility of its industrial structure, to excel in the arts of peace, and to excel in the acts of war if that be necessary. The scientists and engineers of the country, in close collaboration with the armed services, can be of substantial aid in the task that lies before us.

. . . academia, as a leading generator, analyzer, repository and purveyor of human knowledge and insight, will necessarily have an impact on whether and how the world actually changes. I hope and expect that academia . . . is up to that task, which may require some new undertakings, but mostly will simply require more intensive and better focused attention on existing efforts and greater engagement with the rest of society.

More than 61 years separate these words, yet they are timely, consistent, and relevant to the challenges we face following 11 September. The first quote is from Vannevar Bush in June 1940; the second is from a speech made by Representative Sherwood Boehlert

(R-N.Y.) to the presidents of the State University of New York (SUNY) campuses on 1 October in Albany.

It will be tempting to the administration and Congress in the coming months to reduce the nation's commitment to science and education in order to cope with a prolonged and expensive war effort, an economic recession, and the sudden vanishing of the federal budget surplus—all totally unforeseen even 18 months ago. Such a reduction, however, would be a big mistake, for winning the long-term war on terrorism—as well as addressing a wide range of other societal problems and environmental security issues—will require a rededication to the support of science and education in the country. As noted by Maxine Singer in her Washington Post editorial of 24 September:

The scholars, scientists, and engineers who work in our great universities, industries, and research institutions can, as they have done before, bring deep understanding and original ideas to bear on new challenges. They can contribute more than just novel ways of using technology. Many are trained and experienced problem solvers whose approach to difficult problems is to 'step out of the box' because that is where scientific and technical questions are most likely to yield."

How might atmospheric scientists be able to help fight terrorism? In the near term, we need to be ready to help foil attacks by terrorists at home and anywhere in the world by providing the best possible forecast support to our own and our allies' police and military. Past research and development and advances in observational, modeling, and information technologies have prepared us reasonably well for this immediate challenge, but we can do much better. It appears that fighting terrorism will not be a short-term effort and that repeated and extended campaigns on the ground in hostile countries are likely. These campaigns, and our security at home, will require greatly improved meteorological support, including better forecasts of weather and transport of hazardous gases and aerosols.

Local and regional bio-chemo-meteorological models must be improved quickly and made ready to apply in real time any place in the world to help in the response to a nuclear, biological, or chemical attack. I define a bio-chemo-meteorological model as one that contains full nonhydrostatic meteorological dynamics and physics and appropriately interactive biological and chemical processes. These models should be capable of being initialized in real time anywhere in the world. They should compute three-dimensional transport of gases and suspended solids and liquids, chemical interactions, and the decay and removal of a variety of toxic chemical and biological substances.

Such prototype models exist at places like the Atmospheric Release Advisory Capability facility in the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Research Applications Program in NCAR, but they are primitive compared to what is needed. Models capable of resolving scales of motion ranging from those of individual buildings, neighborhoods, and cities to the whole Earth must be ready to be activated at a moment's notice to forecast the fate of potentially deadly airborne agents. These models must be able to predict not only the three-dimensional airflow, but also the presence of important, hard-to-forecast parameters such as clouds, fog, precipitation, dust, visibility, and refractive indices, as well as how these atmospheric parameters interact with a variety of chemical and biological agents.

The models must be able to be initialized with real meteorological and chemical data and run in ensemble mode with many emission scenarios to generate probable distributions of future concentrations and exposure potentials to hazardous materials. Knowledge of these probable distributions and exposures is critically important to emergency response efforts, because in most foreseeable events the number of people actually exposed to dangerous concentrations of materials will be very small compared to the general population at risk. It will be important not only to warn the people most at risk, but to avoid overwarning a terrified public. Because in situ observations in hostile countries may become difficult to obtain, we should spend greater effort toward the development and use of remote sensing to provide initial data for the models.

Although perhaps the most immediate and readily grasped danger, terrorism is only one aspect of environmental security that threatens the world. Other aspects include stress on economies, health, and agriculture caused by severe weather, climate variability, and long-term change; global warming; and air and water pollution on local, regional, and global scales. While appearing less noxious and less immediate to human life and well being than terrorism, over the long run these factors will affect more people and have a greater negative impact on society. Long-range (seasonal), medium-range (a few days to two weeks) and short-range (a few hours to a day) outlooks and forecasts all have a role to play not only in fighting terrorism but in the other areas of environmental security.

To address both the short-term terrorist threat and the long- term environmental security of the United States, we must invest more in science and education, across a broad front: physics; chemistry; biology; geosciences; and the humanities and social sciences, including history, languages, and cultures. We should avoid the mistake we made during the Cold War era of reducing support for a broad science and education agenda in favor of a narrower, defense-based R&D agenda. We must understand better our role in the new world and the roles of others who think differently than we do. We must become less arrogant and become better citizens of the world. We cannot remain isolated and ignore the needs of others. We must not always put the U.S. economy and consumerism at the top of our priorities. And we need to work much more cooperatively with other nations on issues such as global air and water pollution and climate change. In a truly inspirational speech against terrorism on 2 October in Brighton, England, British Prime Minister Tony Blair implored world leaders:

We could defeat climate change, if we chose to. Kyoto is right. We will implement it and call upon all other nations to do so. But it's only a start. With imagination, we could use or find the technologies that create energy without destroying our planet, we could provide work and trade without deforestation. If humankind was able, finally, to make industrial progress without the factory conditions of the 19th century, surely, we have the wit and will to develop economically without despoiling the very environment we depend upon.


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UCAR > Communications > UCAR Quarterly > Winter 2001 Search

Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu
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Last revised: Thu Dec 20 16:42:17 MST 2001