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UCAR at 25
The Grand Experiment
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Global Change


Global Change and Other Challenges: A Grander Experiment?

The rapid growth in the study of Earth, its environs, and life in the biosphere has progressed to a point where it is now possible to think seriously of fashioning a bold, holistic approach that will deepen and strengthen our understanding of the planet's subtle and often synergistic physical, chemical, and biological processes. Such a framework would examine the oceans, atmosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere, biota, and the solar-terrestrial domain as a single system.

Thomas F. Malone, preface to Global Change, The Proceedings of a Symposium Sponsored by the International Council of Scientific Unions, Ottawa, Canada, 25 September 1984.

"I view global change as the major challenge facing UCAR," says UCAR President Clifford Murino. "It could be the target of a major new research initiative."

Thomas Malone, one of UCAR's founding fathers, chair of the National Academy of Sciences Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate, and the moving force behind a host of national and international scientific programs and organizations, puts it even more strongly.

"UCAR and NCAR are doing better than we envisioned 25 years ago," Malone says. "They have far exceeded the dreams we had in those days. But the best way to assure that UCAR will still be a viable, vibrant, contributing institution 25 years from now is to develop a vision of what it wants to be. I think the vision that will ensure UCAR's success over the next 25 years is the concept of the earth, atmosphere, oceans, and biota as a single system. This vision is still evolving, but it holds the promise of expanding the UCAR conceptual framework into something that will continue to succeed for another 25 years."

Early in 1986, UCAR formalized its response to the challenge of global change. A new Office for Interdisciplinary Earth Studies, headed by John Eddy, will focus UCAR efforts to bring the atmospheric sciences and other relevant disciplines together to study the earth's living and inanimate elements as a single system. President Murino believes that this new effort could grow into a major research effort on global change. "It would probably have atmosphere/biosphere interactions at the core," he says, "but it could involve collaboration among university scientists from many traditional disciplines and academic departments. It would be important for such an effort to be international as well as multidisciplinary."

Eddy also serves as chair of the National Academy of Sciences U.S. Committee for an International Geosphere-Biosphere Program (IGBP). Testifying at a 1985 subcommittee hearing of the Committee on Science and Technology of the U.S. House of Representatives, Eddy described the IGBP as "a proposed program of international research aimed at understanding the earth as a living planet. Of particular interest are those interactions that are known to link the physical environment of air and water and soil—the geosphere—with the plant and animal life of the biosphere. Our need to know those connections is both pressing and profound. Behind an IGBP is a widespread feeling in science that modern problems of climate, air and water quality, and land use have reached the stage where understanding lies beyond the grasp of individual scientific disciplines. To understand these problems, and to predict the increasing perturbations of man, we need a new approach: one that involves a collaboration among different fields of science and that enlists the support of scientists around the world."

To understand global change, it will be necessary to consider the earth, atmosphere, oceans, and biota as a single system and to analyze their interactions in an approach that integrates and transcends traditional scientific disciplines.

Some innovative approaches to cross-disciplinary research are appearing in UCAR universities. Michael McElroy, professor of atmospheric science, heads a research group in Harvard's Center for Earth and Planetary Physics that is not part of any traditional academic department. As an example of how an interdisciplinary approach can work on a small scale, McElroy describes the evolution of a research effort that began as an atmospheric chemistry project: "We started measuring nitrogen concentrations in the Potomac River several years ago with the initial motive of studying processes that produced atmospheric nitrous oxide. We discovered that the river was a very large source of nitrous oxide downstream from a sewage treatment plant. From that initial result, which might have been regarded as all we needed in terms of atmospheric chemistry, we keep going, and now we think we have a good understanding of what happens in the river. One interesting by-product is a simple model that an engineer can use with a pocket calculator to predict what will happen to the river if various management strategies are changed at the sewage treatment plant. One of the exciting things about this kind of approach is that it reaches out in so many directions."

In his preface to the report produced by the 1985 atmosphere/biosphere workshop, Murino wrote that the workshop was organized with a particular view to the requirements of the IGBP and other impending national and international programs of global research. "These programs, however labeled, are much alike in calling for a more unified study of the earth and life upon it as a linked and interconnected system," Murino asserted. "They speak as one in calling for greater collaboration between the sciences and, in effect, a gradual dismantling of the walls that now separate the formal scientific disciplines that study the earth."

Other new challenges for the UCAR community are emerging along with global change. Federal agencies are turning to UCAR to bring university scientists into their research and education programs.

"A number of agencies have asked us to help involve university scientists in research related to their operational needs," Murino explains. "We have created major new UCAR activities in response to requests from the National Weather Service and the Navy. We have worked with them to establish visiting scientist programs that include long- term appointments, postdoctoral fellowships, visits by senior scientists, and even some involvement of graduate students in the agencies' operational activities. The goal is to improve the quality of the agencies' operational products by broadening and improving the quality of their research programs."

The National Weather Service program is based at the National Meteorological Center in Suitland, Maryland, and also involves the National Hurricane Forecast Center in Miami, Florida, and the National Severe Storms Forecast Center in Kansas City, Missouri. The Navy program is centered at the Naval Environmental Prediction and Research Facility in Monterey, California.

The National Weather Service and the Air Weather Service of the U.S. Air Force have turned to UCAR for assistance in staff training and education. UCAR and the agencies are considering preparation of educational materials and organization of colloquia and tutorials to be conducted by scientists from NCAR and the UCAR universities.

"Another major UCAR educational initiative was launched at the request of the universities," Murino says. "UCAR is helping the universities in an effort to recruit more graduate students with stronger academic preparation. Similar efforts may be developed at the undergraduate and even the pre-college level."

The UCAR staff is also working with the universities to assess the idea of sharing improved course materials developed by the UCAR community for its full constituency. "We are also working to help the universities integrate new technology such as personal computers and interactive communication systems into their course offerings," Murino explains. "I see more and more of this kind of educational cooperation in UCAR's future."

Problems such as the greenhouse effect, acid rain, and ozone destruction have raised many public-policy issues with strong scientific components. UCAR has been exploring ways to develop more effective mechanisms to transfer relevant scientific knowledge from the research community that produces it to the policy makers who need it in a form that will make it understandable and usable.

UCAR is also working to build closer ties between the UCAR/NCAR community and the industrial sector. The first step is the UCAR Corporate Affiliates Program, designed to establish continuing relationships between UCAR and selected corporations and to increase corporate executives' awareness of potential benefits from atmospheric research.

"Many industries are highly weather dependent," says Murino, "for example, agriculture, transportation, and communication. We are working to make them aware of useful research products of the universities and NCAR. We want them to understand current trends and needs in the atmospheric sciences, especially the kind of technology that will be useful in future research. We see a need for a constant two-way exchange of technology between industry and the atmospheric science community."

UCAR's role in helping the university community utilize new technology is exemplified by the Weather Data Communication and Interactive Data Systems Project, usually referred to as Unidata. This effort began in 1982, when the National Weather Service began phasing out the dissemination of daily weather information directly to users. Because it appeared that the cost of weather data disseminated through commercial channels might be prohibitively high for universities that needed the data for teaching and research, UCAR was asked to look for an alternative.

The prototype Unidata system that resulted from this effort links the universities with each other and with NCAR through a communication network that allows university scientists to work collaboratively, transfer data files, and have access to computing and other research facilities at their own campuses and at NCAR and other research centers. Murino describes Unidata as "a totally different kind of concept that allows the universities to exploit much of the hardware and software that comes out of NCAR's research and facilities programs."

All these challenges that face UCAR today clearly will be strong influences in shaping its role and accomplishments during its next 25 years. However, many scientific and societal issues that have brought UCAR into the forefront of national and international science in 1985 did not exist, and in many cases were not even foreseen, in 1960. Like many scientific experiments, the institutional "grand experiment" that is UCAR may produce even more unpredictable but valuable results in its second quarter-century.

UCAR at 25IntroductionThe Grand ExperimentStormsAtmospheric ChemistrySun and EarthTeleconnectionsGlobal Change


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Executive editor Lucy Warner, lwarner@ucar.edu
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Last revised: Tue Oct 17 10:56:25 MDT 2000