Using Climate Data in the Real World

This season’s series of hurricanes and intense storms in the Caribbean and Gulf Coast highlights the importance of extreme weather resilience and planning that can help mitigate the impacts of climate change. Extreme weather as well as climate trends such as higher temperatures and more nuisance flooding have prompted government and business leaders to question whether they are prepared for the next disaster and the future climate. But many remain uncertain about sources of climate data, techniques to apply global-scale models to local conditions, and how uncertain forecasts can affect everyday corporate and community decision-making.

The collection and analysis of reliable data is critical to the business community and state and local leaders in decision-making. And, state climatologists, local universities and federally-funded research from institutions like the Argonne National Laboratory and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) are producing the type of high-quality forecasting the business community and local governments need to consider investments.

To address these questions, C2ES hosted a webinar to bring together experts from federal agencies and the energy sector to discuss available climate data, uses and limitations, and applications in decision making in the private sector. A number of communities and businesses cite lack of reliable data as a challenge in resilience planning, but the presenters showed that adequate data is available and advised that decision-making can occur despite imperfect information. The presenters emphasized that the key to using climate data in decision making is working with local experts, including state climatologists, local universities and regional centers of NOAA to help collect, analyze and interpret data for decision-making or planning.

Most federal observations of past and current climate conditions, for example, are archived in NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information. NOAA also provides a number of regional products that interpret climate information in summaries, webinars and resources for various economic sectors. Visual tools to show temperature, rainfall, streamgage and other kinds of data are available, including the Sea Level Rise Viewer mapping tool that offers a visualization of community-level impacts from coastal flooding or sea-level.

Federal scientists are also developing cutting edge global climate models and downscaling techniques intended to provide fine scale resolution (10 – 100 kilometers) of future climate projections. Argonne National Laboratory is one example of this expert modeling and works to make data available to the research and business communities and others. Climate models use mathematical equations to describe parts of the climate system such as atmosphere, oceans and ice cover, and can be used to simulate conditions over hundreds of years. Over time, these models have accounted for a growing number of climate factors and increased the data resolution, providing more highly-detailed information for targeted areas.

While uncertainties in climate projections like the rate of future greenhouse gas emissions is especially tricky for communities, businesses and others to overcome, the hurdle can be significantly curtailed. With support from state climatologists and other regional climate experts, communities and business leaders can quantify and provide bounds for uncertainty by analyzing low- and high-emissions scenarios. Despite some lingering uncertainty, most data points to high-probability trends which allow for sufficiently-informed decision-making, especially on near-term projects.

The assistance of the experts at NOAA and national laboratories is crucial for communities, states, and businesses beginning to consider climate impacts in different aspects of planning.

With the assistance of NOAA regional offices, Southern California utility San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) uses downscaled climate data in their long-term planning, helping them to better anticipate how extreme weather events and climate trends could affect their assets and operations. SDG&E is carrying out assessments of the electric sector’s vulnerability to sea level rise and the exposure of natural gas lines and facilities to all climate impacts. To better understand which infrastructure could be threatened and when it could become vulnerable, SDG&E has worked with scientists and consultants to overlay facility locations with maps of projected climate impacts such as sea level rise maps and simulated 100-year storm flooding. SDG&E said the partnership with NOAA and the regional climate office was key to their resilience planning.

NOAA’s collections of data can answer many questions you might have about your local climate, but SDG&E’s work also shows the added value of downscaled data accessed through the CalAdapt platform. CalAdapt is a site that synthesizes data and information produced by California’s scientific and research community to provide raw data, visualization tools and case studies. SDG&E also uses data from CalAdapt to inform design of a new compressor station and review their internal design standards for changes needed to prepare for rising sea levels. While this resource is unique to California, federal investments for improved climate monitoring and modeling can enable other states to have access to high-resolution data to inform resilience planning.

As the stakes for resilience planning are higher every year, it is also vital that the federal government continue to support climate experts at federal agencies to help communities and businesses who rely on accurate climate data. Cities and businesses today have the information they need to inform the no-regrets actions that should be taken, but improved and continually updated climate monitoring and modeling will still be necessary to reduce uncertainty and with long-term decisions.