- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 14, 2004

In this town where omniscience is not required — but it helps — it is rare to meet a person who knows the discipline of honest ignorance. One of them is retired Vice Adm. Conrad Lautenbacher Jr., the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Mr. Lautenbacher’s aptly initialed agency (pronounced “Noah”) supervises the science and forecasts of seas and skies. The bespectacled, black-haired administrator appears closer to an accountant than an admiral, and is so far removed from the pomp and circumstance associated with those with stars on their sleeves that when meeting him one is left wondering, “Where’s the band?”

He recently described his perspective on the climate of the climate and the currents over lunch in an office festooned with insignias of the areas of NOAA’s over- (and under-) sight such as a large photo of two hurricane-hunting planes on the wall and a “Dummies guide to the Arctic and Antarctic” on a bookshelf.

The deeps are full of darkness. Only about 5 percent of the ocean bottom has been mapped in the same detail as the moon. Even more remains to be resolved about the chemistry and biology of the seas, and the ways in which they interact to form ecologies. Although oceans provide about 20 percent of the world’s protein (perhaps a bit more considering the Atkins craze), the mapping of ocean ecosystems has really just begun.

Oceans also play a great, but still little-understood role in regulating the planet’s climate. Vast streams of water run through the oceans carrying a wide variety of climate-affecting factors, such as heat, nutrients and carbon — the last from both dissolved carbon dioxide and dead creatures. Many have only recently been discovered, but their oscillations in temperature and pressure can take about a decade.

Mr. Lautenbacher said that since those cycles are still ill understood, climate questions cannot be answered with great certainty. Liberals would like Mr. Lautenbacher to proclaim man-caused global warming an immediate threat. Conservatives would like him to call global warming a myth.

He does neither. Instead he claimed, “We have a large body of research that tells us there is something to worry about. It [the climate] could be changing — I honestly don’t know — maybe, perhaps not.”

When asked about models “proving” climatological catastrophes will occur, he noted with the quiet certainty of someone who has done it (he has an M.S. and a Ph.D. in applied mathematics from Harvard) that he could make a computer spit out any answer desired. The difficult part is assembling a model accurate enough to pass the umbrella test (consumers carry cover when rain is predicted). Noting that climate forecasting is far more complicated than weather forecasting, Mr. Lautenbacher said, “Climate models are still in their infancy.”

Those models will only mature as data accumulates. Up to this point, it has been a slow process since scientific studies are by nature limited in time and space — they can only survey a small area for a small time — after which papers must be written and grant applications renewed or revised. Mr. Lautenbacher is hoping to change that by establishing a global network of sensors to “take the pulse” of the planet.

The Earth Observation System (EOS) was launched last summer, but is expected to take more formal shape at a late April conference in Tokyo. Mr. Lautenbacher will lead the U.S. delegation, and will be joined by representatives of more than 40 other nations. All EOS participants will gather, share and integrate data on oceanic and atmospheric interactions.

There are many reasons for more detailed studies in those areas. Consumers and policymakers continue to benefit from better forecasts of short- and long-term changes in the climate. More accurate hurricane forecasts increase warning time and decrease losses.

Mr. Lautenbacher estimates improving weather forecast accuracy by 1 degree Fahrenheit would reduce electricity costs $1 billion annually. Great wealth may lie in the millions of square miles of undersurveyed waters and seabeds within the United States’ Exclusive Economic Zone; many medicines might come out of the deeps.

With fair funding from Congress, Mr. Lautenbacher and his crew at NOAA will continue following the skies and opening the seas.

There should be no question. Benefits have always come from the illumination of dark places — whether watery depths or the honest depths of the unknown.

Charles Rousseaux is a member of the editorial board of The Washington Times.

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