WASHINGTON — Alaska will become home to one of six federal climate science centers, a move that is expected to result in a greater emphasis on the state and the Arctic as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration moves forward with plans to focus on the changing climate.
Alaska's new climate center -- part of a reorganization that creates the new NOAA Climate Service -- was announced Wednesday by Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska. The state has a "huge demand for climate information," Begich said, and the Alaska-based climate science center would give decision-makers a more complete picture about relocating eroding coastal villages, new utility corridors and even where to build roads on permafrost.
"The decision to establish Alaska as a separate region in the new organization recognizes Alaska's unique climate systems and the growing understanding that climate change in the Arctic is having global consequences," said Begich, who sits on the Senate Commerce Committee that oversees the Commerce Department and NOAA.
Under the Bush administration, NOAA's climate programs in the Arctic region were administered out of Reno, Nevada. At the time, Alaska's congressional delegation was led by Republican Sen. Ted Stevens, who questioned the role humans played in climate change, but championed securing money to help the state address the effects of climate change.
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Although the researchers in Nevada do a great job, their focus simply isn't on Alaska, said Larry Hinzman, director of the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. For example, although the National Weather Service gathers a wide array of data, it doesn't collect information about melting sea ice, soil temperatures, glacier melt or other measurements important to understanding Alaska's changing climate, Hinzman said. He and other scientists who've been pressing for an Alaska-based climate center believe that locating it in the state will result in more of a focus on the Arctic.
"It helps the researchers; it also helps the state," Hinzman said. "There is no question the climate is changing. The big question is what's driving it."
The center is likely to be in Anchorage, because NOAA hopes to pair all six national centers with existing regional National Weather Service centers. However, a site has yet to be chosen, said Julie Hasquet, Begich's spokeswoman.
NOAA's proposal still needs congressional approval. If it goes forward, the agency's Climate Service would function much like the National Weather Service has over the past 140 years in providing weather information. The Climate Service would offer comprehensive climate science, data and information using existing assets, such as research labs, climate observing systems, modeling facilities, integrated monitoring systems and the agency's on-the-ground service delivery structure.
NOAA hopes to build on what its officials believe has been a successful effort to transform science into usable climate services, said Jane Lubchenco, the agency's administrator. Their science-based climate information will help equip policy makers, business leaders, local governments and others to plan for a changing climate, Lubchenco said.
"NOAA is committed to scientific integrity and transparency," she said in a statement that announced the reorganization and a new Web site: www.climate.gov.
The climate initiative, announced Monday by the White House, has drawn praise from both environmentalists and business interests. The CEO of one of the nation's largest energy companies, Duke Energy, called it a "welcome addition" to addressing "one of our most pressing environmental challenges."
"Making climate science more easily accessible to all Americans will help us gain the consensus we need to move forward," Jim Rogers, CEO of Duke Energy, said in a statement.
And Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope hailed the proposal, saying that the Obama Administration had "returned science to its proper role in the decision-making process."