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Under Secretary for Oceans and Atmosphere, National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration

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Introduce by Robert White


Under Secretary for Oceans and Atmosphere, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

I want to say a few words about natural disasters and global observations in the context of national security. We have two problems that any country faces when it looks at national security. One is trying to protect itself against invaders. That is why we have a Defense Department. We also have to protect ourselves against natural disasters. That is why we have agencies like NOAA, USGS, and FEMA. These are critical elements as we try to build our society.

Today, we have a world population that is growing and becoming more vulnerable to natural change. We have growth in the United States, but there is a more rapid growth in developing countries. Our population, even if it grows slowly, also changes its distribution. Our population is denser near the central United States. We also become more vulnerable in that way.

Every year we have billions of dollars of property loss and loss of thousands of lives because of floods, droughts, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, volcanos, landslides, and wildfireswith all of these natural disasters the poorest countries suffer the greatest impact. For example, the GNP from a small country can be reduced by 25 percent just because of a single

The recent floods in Europe and California, and the 1993 Midwest flood in the United States, are dramatic reminders of the vulnerability of our society to natural change. We also saw a disruption of transportation and communication systems. We have a disruption of drinking water, gas, and other pipelines and a huge impact on the financial markets, insurance practices, and government functions.

The costs involved are enormous. Since Hurricane Andrew in 1992 we have been losing about a billion dollars a week in natural disasters public and private funds that otherwise could have been invested in education, health, research, and other areas that are important to our countries. The impacts are international. In these past few months Holland has complained that the recent flooding of the Rhine has been exacerbated by Germany's actions or inactions upstream. We know that the Kobe earthquake will have an economic impact not only on Japan, but also on the United States and its other trading partners.

We cannot prevent natural hazards; at least, we do not know how to do that today. But we certainly can reduce our vulnerability to natural hazards. We have been able to reduce the number of casualties from natural hazards because of better warnings, better construction materials, better architectural designs, and better evacuation systems.

In fact, economic losses have continued to escalate because of growth in urban populations, construction in hazard-prone areas, and the increased value of urban infrastructures. By improving our observation systems, we have the opportunity to prepare for natural hazards and take steps to prevent future disasters.

We just heard some interesting discussion about information technologies and energy technologies. These are critical elements of technology to protect us against environmental change. The recent White House document, Technology For A Sustainable Future, presents a list of environmental technologies, those that avoid the production of environmental hazardous substances, those that control or render harmless hazardous substances, remediation technologies that reduce the impact of hazardous substances, restoration technologies, and monitoring and assessment technologies.

I want to spend a few minutes looking at monitoring and assessment technologies. Here we have technologies that help us achieve a world where societal and economic decisions are coupled with a better understanding of how the environment works. The health and stability of economies around the world depends on the health of the environment and then how well we are able to describe, predict, and prepare for these changes.

Let me give you two examples: the first being reduction of natural disasters. We are working very closely in a multi-agency effort between FEMA, NOAA, and the U.S. Geological Survey to predict storms, weather, and floods and to look at geological changes from volcanos and earthquakes. We are currently in the midst of a $4 billion investment to modernize the National Weather Service. We now have already had major improvements in weather forecasting. We deployed new kinds of radars, new kinds of in situ systems, new satellites, and new software systems to make all this work. We have a much better system for disseminating warning information which is being a NOAA/ FEMA weather and warning radio network. It works. In 1903 the Galveston Hurricane caused the loss of lives of about 6,000 people; in 1992 Hurricane Andrew took only about 24 lives. We made a direct impact there, because we could do a much better job of warning. We are regularly providing this technical assistance and equipment to other countries to help them predict and assess changes in their natural environment and minimize the loss of life and property.

With today's technology, we have weather radars that allow us to look out and actually see much further than ever before. With a Doppler system we can see the motion of rainstorms and the amount of hail and rain that we will have. A Doppler system provides advance warnings that covers the entire United States and gives us much better information about short-term and explosive storms. We are putting in about 160 of these radar systems that will cover the entire United States. Just recently UNYSIS, the company that is installing the radar systems negotiated a $4 million sale of the Doppler radar to Taiwan. UNYSIS has also made a similar arrangement to sell about 160 of these radars to China to provide better systems for weather warnings.

We also have a system that helps us provide information about weather to the aviation community. This is a joint effort (as was the radar) between NOAA, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the Department of Defense. When we combine the ground information and the radar information, we can, with new software techniques, provide pilots with information that shows them exactly what is happening with weather in the air and on the ground. They can see an aerial wind bursts and wind shear on the ground. They can see clear air turbulence, and they can see turbulence behind other airplanes. Hollywood technicians who are doing morphing for films are also working for us to provide better visualization of aviation weather.

We are also using this same kind of technique to provide better information about hydrologic forecasting, so we can do a better job of forecasting floods. We are saving millions of dollars per year that would have been lost as a result of large and small floods. In fact, we have a number of international agreements where we are providing this same kind of system and techniques to other countries. We just set up a prototype flood forecasting system for China, for example.

The other pieces of this observing system are satellites. We just put up a satellite that sits out in a geostationary orbit and stares at the earth. It is a new technology for civil systems, and it has allowed us not only to look at the weather that you see on the nightly television, but it also gives us an immediate and direct indication of the growth of small storms. These storms can grow from inception to full intensity in about 30 minutes. If you use a regular polar orbiting satellite, it takes 90 minutes per orbit. You cannot see that growth, but with a geostationary satellite, you can see the storm grow. These new satellites are very important; in fact, the Japanese have decided they are going to buy a satellite very similar to what we have for the same kinds of warnings.

We also participate internationally in United Nations activities to reduce natural disasters. There is an international decade for natural disaster reduction. And, of course, we have a large research effort that we coordinate through the National Science and Technology Council which is a subcommittee on natural disaster reduction chaired by Bill Hooke from NOAA.

We have also been working very closely with the commercial sector in helping to develop technology and providing the necessary licenses for them to develop new technologies for high resolution land remote sensing. This has worked very well. There is a whole new activity of commercial remote sensing that is going to be important for remote sensing and mapping..

The Defense Department operates another set of satellites, the Global Positioning System (GPS), which sits out at a 12-hour orbit, not quite half way out in space. This system provides us with a very accurate positioning reference to tell us where we are at any one time. We are replacing all those little brass plaques you see around the country with global positioning system reference points. There are a whole host of things that we can do with this new positioning information. We can monitor and assess land use patterns and ecosystems in ways that were not possible before, because we did not have the accurate positioning.

With the new reference system, we are looking at ways of automated, precision agriculture, for example, where you send out your tractor in an automated way and it can go up and down a row by itself. Because it has accurate positioning from its GPS locator, it can actually do that. Smart highways and tracking loads on trains is also possible because of the GPS.

NOAA has just been working, interestingly enough, with Romania, giving them technical training and equipment to facilitate the change from state-owned farms to private farming and to use these kinds of geographic information systems to make this work. This is the first use of the global positioning system in Eastern European surveying and mapping, and it gives an opportunity to provide additional information as these regional economies are becoming stabilized. The Romanians do the training, and work in close cooperation with the World Bank and the European Union.

These are just a few examples of the technology that is used for civilian environmental purposes. Much of it has a military heritage. It is a very exciting time for us to have this technology and these joint activities that help other countries. Perhaps it would make senses for us to look at our priorities and determine whether giving environmental monitoring technologies might not be just as effective as giving countries military aid. It is worth some thought.

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