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Leaders explore Earth-observation needs Hurricane prediction, satellite imagery among concerns

By: Melissa Schneider / Published: Apr 23,  2007


MOBILE, Ala. — Area scientists, business leaders and representatives from state agencies said April 13 that they need higher-resolution satellite images and more accurate information about hurricanes, sea-level change and habitat loss.

About 15 people participated in a listening session about data and technology needs at the 5 Rivers Delta Center in Mobile.

Richard Spinrad, assistant administrator of the NOAA Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, came to the Gulf Coast to find out what current data systems lack.

The information he gathered will be used to shape the Global Earth Observation System of Systems project. NOAA is working with federal agency partners, 68 countries, the European Commission and 46 international organizations to develop the GEOSS system.

Earth observation information currently is gathered through satellites, buoys, seismometers and other devices throughout the world and space. The project calls for integrating the environmental data and delivering them to users in usable formats, such as forecasts, maps and other decision support tools.

As an elected official living on a barrier island, Dauphin Island Mayor Jeff Collier said he believes local leaders need straight-forward information on global warming and sea-level change.

Through a grant funded by the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium, the town is working to develop a long-term strategic plan to improve the island’s resiliency. If government officials are informed about climate issues and the actions they need to take to protect the island, they can keep important matters at the forefront, Collier said.

Protecting natural habitats is a high priority to Dauphin Island, a non-commercial area.

"What we have to sell is that nothingness, naturalness," Collier said. "(Dauphin Island) is a place to get away from civilization." Natural habitats are disappearing, and Leslie Hartman of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Marine Resources Division, would like technology to better monitor how and how quickly. Satellites must have better resolution to determine habitat loss rates, she said.

D. Jay Grimes, provost and vice president for academic affairs at The University of Southern Mississippi, said he would like to see an alternative way to determine when to close oyster reefs. Currently, agencies test waters for fecal coliform to determine if it is safe to harvest oysters. The problem with that method, Grimes said, is that it takes about two days to get the test results.

"I suspect we are shutting down a lot of oyster reefs unnecessarily," he said.

Closing oyster reefs can have unintended negative effects on restaurants, according to Colette Boehm, special projects director of the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau. Tourists may hear on the local news that an oyster reef has been closed and decide not to eat at seafood restaurants.

Increasing education about marine issues, such as oyster reefs, is important to the economy, she said.

Education about hurricane tracking maps also is needed, she said, because people who plan vacations on the Gulf Coast and do not understand the maps may cancel their reservations unnecessarily.

Data important to economic development should be included in maps and other tools, said Patty Howell, director of regional affairs for the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce. She suggested NOAA include growth trends and information about movement of goods and systems with other observation systems.

Hurricane prediction is particularly important to power companies, said Bob Bailey, Alabama Power distribution support manager.

Power companies gear up for hurricane season months before it begins, and they would be best served by accurate seasonal predictions six months before the storms start blowing, he said.

In addition to accurate seasonal forecasts, knowing the actual effects (such as storm surge) of an approaching hurricane is vital, Bailey said. Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall as a Category 3 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale, caused a storm surge that no one had predicted.

"You would not have convinced anybody in our industry that that would be the case," Bailey said.

Spinrad said NOAA’s National Hurricane Center is working a creating a new scale that will identify the overall intensity of hurricanes, not just wind speed.

As a storm looms in the Gulf, more accurate predictions can help industries in many ways, meeting participants told Spinrad. Shrimpers, aquaculturists and other businesses can sell their products before they lose them if they know what is coming. Better forecasts also would allow cities around the nation to stockpile natural gas and other resources that may not be available for days or weeks after the storm.

Executive Director George Crozier, of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, said researchers need easier ways to share data.

Sharing information within the two Alabama coastal counties can be difficult, he said, and he would like observation systems to integrate data and offer easy access. Right now, scientists usually pick up the phone and ask a colleague to send data files when they need them.

Navigators, especially barge operators, are screaming for wave-height information, said James Lyons, director and CEO of the Alabama State Port Authority, said. Current observation systems do not offer that information, which would benefit inland and marine boat operators.

Steve Perry, executive director of The Forum, said industries could benefit from improved climate scale forecasts (such as drought predictions) and pipeline monitoring systems that would identify pipeline leaks and power upsets.

Spinrad said the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has information on terrestrial pipelines, but a dilemma exists about how much information to make public.

Another hurdle in gathering data is determining what public entities should gather and what the private sector should gather, Spinrad said.

Glade Woods, co-director of the Northern Gulf Institute, said integrating federal agencies, state agencies and private industry could improve data needs. The private-industry element often is missing, he said. The Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium organized the listening session.

For more information about the Global Earth Observation System of Systems, go to http://usgeo.gov or http://www.earthobservations.org.

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