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Looking toward the Future: The Next 40 Years

UCAR at 40
Who We Are
Introduction
One Planet, One Atmosphere
Between Sun and Earth
Measuring and Modeling
When Weather Matters Most
Spreading the Word
Knowledge for All
•Looking toward the Future
UCAR at a Glance
List of acronyms


The world looked very different to the infant UCAR and NCAR than it does today. In 1960, the global population was a mere three billion, the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration was at a level of about 315 parts per million (ppm), the mean global temperature was 13.9°C (57.0°F), and there was no Antarctic ozone hole. Air and water pollution problems were essentially local concerns. Computers were massive in physical size, but slow by today's standards—the maximum speed of the most powerful computer was 100,000 operations per second. State-of-the-art computer models of weather and climate contained only the simplest descriptions of atmospheric physics. (In 1960, these models had only a few vertical layers and could only resolve atmospheric features on a horizontal scale of 1,000 kilometers or greater.) Numerical weather prediction models showed very little skill compared to traditional, subjective methods. The first weather satellite, TIROS I (Television Infrared Observation Satellite), provided tantalizing, though fuzzy, photographs of Earth's clouds. Science was compartmentalized in narrow disciplines and climatology was a relatively minor subdiscipline of meteorology. Communication among scientists and policy makers occurred slowly or inefficiently through mail and telephones. Rachel Carson's 1962 book, Silent Spring, which arguably launched a new environmental consciousness, had not yet appeared.

Today, in 2000, the global population has doubled to six billion, the carbon dioxide concentration has increased to 370 ppm, and the mean global temperature has risen to 14.4°C (57.9°F). A huge depletion in the stratospheric ozone over the Antarctic is a regular springtime event and has been shown to be the result of human emissions of chlorofluorocarbons. A similar hole seems to be developing over the Arctic. Air and water pollution problems have become global in scale, and many international agreements have been signed in an attempt to control them. Emissions of gases and particles from North America affect Europe; those from Europe affect Asia; and, in turn, those from Asia cross the Pacific and affect North America. Hand-held computers are faster than the most powerful computers of 1960, and today's most powerful computers sustain 100 billion operations per second, a millionfold increase since 1960. Models that couple the components of the Earth system (ocean, atmosphere, land, and ice) now forecast the weather—and simulate global climate—at horizontal resolutions of tens of kilometers. Numerical weather prediction models provide the basis for accurate forecasts of from 12 hours to ten days. Climate prediction models are showing increasing skill levels in forecasting seasonal trends and anomalies, such as recurring El Niño events. Revolutionizing communication, the Internet has made possible virtually instantaneous sharing of data, knowledge, and information among scientists around the world. Science is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary in nature; many of the most important and interesting problems require expertise derived from several distinct disciplinary traditions. One of the grand challenges for modern science is to develop a predictive understanding of the complete Earth system—including the physical, chemical, biological, and human processes—which would have seemed almost an absurd goal 40 years ago.

In the next few decades, the pace of change will, almost certainly, continue to quicken, and scientific understanding will become ever more important as society faces the multifaceted challenges of global environmental change. With a global population in 2040 of something like 11 or 12 billion, the effects of human technological society on the environment, and vice versa, will be far more pervasive, complex, and substantial than today. The global mean temperature may rise another 1–2°C (1.8–3.6°F), leading to uncertain but significant changes in weather patterns and storms. Sea level may rise 80–120 mm (3–5 inches), with profound effects on low-lying coastal areas. The healing of the ozone hole permitted by gradually decreasing chlorofluorocarbons may well be offset by colder polar stratospheric temperatures and, consequently, more polar stratospheric clouds. Unpredictable phenomena, akin to the unforeseen development of the ozone hole in the 1970s and 1980s, are almost certain to occur.

What does all this imply for the future of science and society? In an optimistic view, our scientific understanding of the Earth system and the human relationship with it will be much greater, and our ability to predict variability and change will be far advanced compared to today. Science will be used by decision makers to minimize the negative impacts of humanity on the Earth, while providing the basis for all people to live healthy, safe, and fulfilling lives. Rigorous environmental science will be used routinely in the public and private sectors, including agriculture, energy, water, transportation, health, and emergency management.

It has to be admitted that enormous challenges stand in the way of attaining this optimistic vision of a future guided by human knowledge. These include intellectual challenges in all the scientific disciplines, in mathematics, and in observational and computational technologies. They also include fundamental challenges for human-resource development and education. Knowledge and technologies are advancing so fast that it is difficult for people to keep up with the rate of change and effectively exploit the advances. The integration of the scientific and technological advances and their application to societal needs is perhaps the greatest of all grand challenges.

UCAR president Richard Anthes (left) and NCAR director Timothy Killeen.

The geoscience community, working with the mathematical, computer, life, and social sciences, has an essential role to play in achieving the vision and will have to respond to these challenges in an aggressive and effective manner. This community bears the awesome responsibility of educating an informed populace about the issues involved with global change, without shrinking from the needed debates on uncertainty and complexity. It must also reach out to all sectors of society to assemble a diverse human resource pool and to ensure that interdisciplinary science is used as a tool to effect responsible planetary stewardship. Many new partnerships will be needed to ensure that the appropriate mix of advances in modeling, observational systems, information technologies, and the social sciences is brought to bear on the most critical problems. The universities, UCAR and NCAR, and the National Science Foundation must be the intellectual leaders of this national effort, working with our counterparts in industry, government, and the international community. We must ensure that the intellectual and human resources and the observational and computational resources are adequate to identify and solve the most critical problems. And we must ensure that the intellectual successes in understanding are translated quickly and effectively to meet the needs of society.

The six goals of UCAR's strategic outlook, UCAR 2001 (see "UCAR at a Glance") and the three strategic themes of the National Science Foundation (ideas, people, and tools) are consistent. Together, they form a strategic foundation for realizing the vision for the next 40 years. They also form a strong basis for meeting the goal of the NSF Geosciences Directorate for the first decade of the new millennium, as expressed in its strategic plan, NSF Geociences Beyond 2000: "To benefit the nation by advancing the scientific understanding of the integrated Earth systems through supporting high quality research, improving geoscience education and strengthening scientific capacity."

UCAR and NCAR today are—without question—more relevant and needed than ever. The UCAR/NCAR intellectual evolution of the first four decades has set the stage for critically important contributions well into the 21st century. The world has seemingly grown smaller, through astonishing advances in telecommunications, but we have, at the same time, a vastly greater appreciation of the complexity and interrelatedness of the physical and human spheres that form the coupled Earth system. NSF now uses new terms, such as "planetary metabolism" and "planetary ecology," to capture the need to think more broadly, and in a more integrated sense, about humanity's relationship with the natural world. These urgent scientific challenges are indeed grand— yet also humbling in some way.

UCAR and NCAR must—and will—meet these challenges by stretching the intellectual envelope, by contributing to the development of a diverse work force capable of generating and using new scientific knowledge about the Earth system, and by nourishing existing and new partnerships with universities and other public and private institutions to study the large and complex research and policy issues related to global change. It should be an exciting ride.

Rick Anthes

Timothy Killeen


UCAR at 40
Who We Are
Introduction
One Planet, One Atmosphere
Between Sun and Earth
Measuring and Modeling
When Weather Matters Most
Spreading the Word
Knowledge for All
•Looking toward the Future
UCAR at a Glance
List of acronyms


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Executive editor Lucy Warner, lwarner@ucar.edu
Prepared for the Web by Jacque Marshall
Last revised: Fri Jan 26 17:18:32 MST 2001