An Interview with Conrad Lautenbacher by John Adam
The hat collection overtaking his corner office two blocks from the White House says much of Conrad Lautenbacher’s interests. The caps are mementos of a decorated 40-year Navy career and also from his current job, where part of it is running oceanographic and fisheries vessels, including underwater robots.
He is chief of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency, overseeing a $4 billion annual operation of satellites, ships, and in situ sensors on balloons and buoys that, analyzed in its national centers, improve prediction of daily weather, seasonal hurricanes, and long-term climate cycles, among other things.
Not long after joining NOAA in 2001, Vice Admiral Lautenbacher began working with other nations to attempt a comprehensive, coordinated and sustained observation of the Earth. The effort has come to be known as the Global Earth Observation System of Systems. There is no boss of GEOSS, but he is a founder and one of its four international co-chairs. He sat down with Earthzine contributor John Adam in early September to talk about some of the challenges.
Earthzine: How does your 40 years with the Navy, a lot of it on borderless blue ocean, affect management of NOAA, a rather far flung civilian agency?
Lautenbacher: It’s a very important background for me. Obviously this is not a military organization. Our operations are open. But we need to have the same kind of coordination skills. The success of America is that we are able to manage large projects. Not that I claim I’m the best manager in the world, but I have experience with large operations. You need to treat the Earth as something connected. The global ecosytem doesn’t fit within political boundaries or even the physical boundaries between land and sea and air. Everything is coupled. And if you don’t view it as a total system, or system of systems, you will miss a great deal.
Earthzine: With regard to the observation system, GEOSS, how would you describe it, Version 5.0 perhaps?
Lautenbacher: [Laughs.] I don’t think of it that way. Global observations have been a fact of life for a long, long time. The question is: Are we doing it comprehensively, organized in a way that can contribute to understanding our Earth, understanding the physics, the biology, the chemistry? Are we then able put together the facts and information that can be provided to citizens as well as policy makers to make decisions. And that’s not happened. We are not there yet. We’ve been doing it piecemeal. Individual countries have satellites. Individual countries have buoys in the waters that detect salinity, temperature, wave action, currents and related information.
Until the last decade, we haven’t really had the framework to bring nations and organizations together in some coherent way to share data. We call it GEOSS – that’s an internationally negotiated term. It’s a tough job negotiating agreements among 30 or 70 or 180 nations. We have had individual systems for a long time. The United States has a number of satellites, and Europe too. Some of the developing countries have weather observation systems. The real key is the System of Systems. It’s getting that other “S” into this game. And then you get to your 1.0, 2.0, 3.0 or whatever version. It’s too early to talk in those terms. We need basic agreements on coverage, data sharing and use of information. These agreements are more difficult than the technical issues. I think you could produce Version 5.0 instantaneously if everybody agreed to share data and set up common the protocols. The human and the political dimensions are the most difficult.
Earthzine: How is the U.S. addressing this political challenge?
Lautenbacher: The United States supports science for public good. We buy satellites and provide information for free. The business model that we have for data availability in the U.S. is one we believe is worthwhile sharing with the world. We should exchange information worldwide and ensure it is coherent, accurate, validated, and complete. Generally, scientists and politicians have access only to individual studies, to three months of data in the Arctic, or measurements of carbon in the ocean over a period of a few months. But to obtain carbon measurements around the entire globe in a definable way, and to understand how carbon is moves around the Earth would be a great achievement. It is extraordinarily important if we’re going to get a handle on climate change. Today we don’t have a comprehensive global carbon measuring system. It’s just not there.
Earthzine: The confluence of space and information technology enables a full carbon measurement to be attempted. What was the catalyst for this program, had you been thinking of this before NOAA?
Lautenbacher: Before NOAA, I was at CORE (Consortium for Oceanographic Research and Education). The oceanography community has been interested in this for a long time. I’ve been very interested in the progress of a global ocean observing system which could support a comprehensive measurement system. It’s been very slow starting. It’s hard. It’s expensive. The ocean is basically opaque to satellites.
Yet, the ocean is hugely important for climate, weather, navigation, transportation, energy. And then you consider other human dimensions. What is it that we can do to bring the world to an economic standard that we can be proud of? The opportunity is there. I understood this participating in a three-hour conference presentation in Africa. There were county managers, city managers, people from 11 African countries or so who had to wrestle with basic life giving requirements. For three hours, they gave a tribute to geographic information systems (GIS) populated with satellite and in situ data. With help from GIS-based information, they knew where to drill wells. They knew where not to put roads–kinds of things that the developed world takes for granted. It allowed them to leapfrog forward. I realized the potential is enormous.
We have precedents such as CEOS, the organization that cooperates on earth observing satellites, and the World Meteorological Association, which shares weather data. Why not get more of these systems together so we can really build a complete and coherent information base, and expand these “GIS” layers. GEOSS is not just for physical sciences. Let’s get medical, health, environment, biological, fisheries, and agricultural interests to contribute GIS layers and build a truly comprehensive Earth System of Systems. We would have a very powerful tool for nations and for average citizens to improve their lot. I’m not claiming any credit for the idea. People have been talking about this for 30 years, since the beginning of the satellites age. What is happening today is the confluence of observing technology and information technology. The Internet is penetrating everywhere. You have a great thirst and hunger for information. Why not try to harness it in a logical, efficient way?
Scores of nations have signed up, and a large number of UN groups have joined We can begin to start to correlate multidisciplinary conditions which can get at questions such as how does bird flu get transmitted? The solution requires large, worldwide databases that have transparency. If you can tell in advance where a disease originates and where it is going, you will be better able to contain it.
Earthzine: How do you reconcile recent published reports, Executive Branch optimism on one hand; on the other, outcries from the National Research Council decadal survey over cuts, such as at NASA’s Earth sciences?
Lautenbacher: There is always a battle for resources. No everyone will always agree on the same priorities. Money is required. There needs to be technical agreement. Scientists are always eager for more information. But can the technology be developed at a reasonable cost? What is it that the nation can afford? What are the priorities that we should put on advancing the state of the science? These are very important questions. We are moving forward. If you look at our ability to observe our earth, it’s on an uptrend. It’s going to continue on an uptrend. I think the various bends in the curve are not that critical. While we do need to work on them, I don’t see them as being a major impediment to building a system of systems. The United States contributes a lion’s share to earth observing at this point. We have something like 58 satellites observing the earth. Lulls in the action have only been temporary.
Earthzine: How would you characterize the human impact on the planet?
Lautenbacher: Humans have a huge impact on the earth. We’re in a race to figure out how to deal with it. We need a complete system, with information coming out in a form that people can use, rather than a table of raw radiances coming from a satellite. We need information they people can look at and utilize to determine whether certain decisions should be made. Using the term ‘observation system’ takes it out of the political realm. I don’t think anybody can argue about having observations. It is basic to the scientific method. We are a science-based society. You start with observations. You need facts, and these must be validated by ground truth.
Earthzine: And what about economic pressures where clean emissions are seen as a luxury?
Lautenbacher: Part of the problem is that nations vary in terms of economic development and protection of the environment. Yet I believe they are connected. The economy and the environment are inextricably connected. We don’t have very good methods to evaluate all the factors, total costs and impacts. That makes it difficult so there is a tendency to ignore them. It is human nature. But we need to figure out what comprises the total costs. Having such basic information will help build the foundation for sensible development. Providing technology for cleaner coal emissions is a reasonable step to take.
Earthzine: How can you get important information to the public and decision makers? In one of your talks, you mentioned NOAA is a popular trafficked government web site.
Lautenbacher: It usually ranks second or third. We experience greatest usage during hurricane season. People are very interested in catastrophic weather. We get enormous hits when we put out a new rule for fishing. It’s a pretty broad distribution.
I see climate forecasts as a big issue. We put out one each season. We need to build climate services the same way we build weather services. In that way a farmer in Wyoming, for example, can look ahead at five-year predictions of the snow pack and consider the need to stockpile water.
Earthzine: Is there some concern that people in industry might see this as a basis for increased regulation?
Lautenbacher: That is a possibility. Yet sometimes industry likes regulation. It just depends on the problem you are trying to solve. A total free-for-all generally is not in everybody’s best interest. You can’t just have Dodge City out there. If you are going to invest in resources for the next 10 years, it is important to know what is going to happen. Usually every party has some interest in having a structure. The aim is to achieve a win/win situation. For example, oil companies with rigs in the Gulf saw the value of sharing non-proprietary information through the government. The data from rigs allow better forecasts of Gulf currents for their use and better hurricane predictions for the public. The result benefits everyone.
Earthzine: What about military intelligence suspicions if the system gets too intrusive?
Lautenbacher: This is a civilian domestic system. It is not meant to challenge or get into any national security issues. We are developing the system for the common good. I believe that as we move to more varied multi-level security systems, in which systems provide information to multiple users– defense as well as industry, civil populations and government officials– there will be certain levels of open observations and information that the world will tolerate and certain levels that each country will tolerate. We should try to press the envelope from the domestic side because, in essence, economies are hooked together today. If we don’t work together, it will be difficult to produce a sustainable future
Earthzine: Is the commitment commensurate with the endeavor yet?
Lautenbacher: The jury is out. Despite tough budgets with the war in Iraq, the President has asked for increases in NOAA’s budget each year. The decadal study questions how we can continue advances created by what might be called a one-time shot at earth observing in the early 90s. NASA does research. NOAA tries to build continuously monitoring resources that we need every day. This transition to operations generally costs more, in terms of reliability, data ingestion, etc. Should more dollars be put into NASA? Should it change priority? I don’t know what the answers are. We are in the intermediate chapters. The last chapters haven’t been written yet.
Earthzine: How do you measure success?
Lautenbacher: A little bit at a time. Success was getting 30 nations to come to Washington to even talk about this. Success was getting nations to agree on a 10-year plan. Success was getting a number of nations to agree to GEONETCast so that with simple computers and a dish information can be sent to all nations of the world. I don’t view our work as ever being completed. This is not something that will stop. This is the answer to the Malthusian prophecies that everybody is going to starve because we don’t know what we are doing. The next step of science is to guide how we will be able to co-exist on our planet. If human beings are going to go on forever, we’re going to need to engage in this pursuit continuously.