The Mesa Laboratory of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, located atop Table Mesa at the west end of Boulder, was designed by architect I.M. Pei and completed in 1966. Courtesy NCAR

Changing climate: Outlook could be stormy for local labs’ funding

Exhibits manager Becca Hatheway examines new climate displays at the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s Mesa Lab in Boulder. Courtesy David Hosansky, NCAR

Scientists at some of the area’s federal laboratories have an admirable record of predicting what the weather will be like tomorrow. They’re also confident in their findings about a warming planet and what’s causing it.

Forecasting what the radically changed political climate will mean for their work is another matter. And yet, just as they pass on tips about what to do if a tornado approaches, they are coming up with contingency plans for how to do their work if the money dries up.

The one thing they — and the businesses their research has attracted — know for sure is that the Boulder area is in the epicenter of the climate-change debate, the eye of the storm.

“The Front Range of Colorado is unique in its density and proximity to federal research labs — climate, space science, renewable energy, clean tech. It cannot be overstated how much of a unique draw that is to innovative industries,” said Dan Powers, executive director of CO-LABS, a Boulder-based consortium of federal labs, universities, economic-development entities, nonprofits and private-sector companies. CO-LABS’ unabashed mission, Powers said, is “to make sure those labs stay funded — and stay here.”

Researchers at the labs believe they have plenty of reason to worry about that. Newly elected President Trump has described human-caused climate change as a “hoax” and worse, and his Cabinet nominees, many of whom have ties to the fossil-fuel industry and whose departments will manage the labs’ purse strings, have records of either denying that global warming is occurring or claiming that the science is unsettled.

Tim Barnes, a University Corporation for Atmospheric Research education specialist, explains some of the new exhibits on climate change on the second floor of the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s Mesa Laboratory in Boulder. Dallas Heltzell for BzWest

“Whether it is 97 percent, 80 percent, etc. of scientists who agree that the world is warming does not truly matter to me,” countered Mike Nelson, KMGH-TV Channel 7’s chief meteorologist, in a blog on the Denver station’s website. “If eight out of 10 oncologists said I had cancer, and two people with doctorates in economics said I was fine, I know who I would trust.”

Stoking researchers’ anxiety has been the Trump administration’s restrictions on social-media feeds and presentations. At the Environmental Protection Agency, employees were told to remove information about climate change from its website, only to have the order reversed later. A member of the Trump transition sent a questionnaire to the Department of Energy seeking the names of researchers there who worked on climate-change issues.

In response, some scientists reportedly scrambled to pull their research off government servers and onto publicly available private ones, and at least 40 “rogue” Twitter accounts sprang up nearly overnight.

One post from @RogueNOAA contended that research at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration “should be subject to peer (not political) review.”

“They just ban things. It’s all ideological, with no regard for the actual situation about what’s going on and why,” said Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, whose Mesa Laboratory at the base of the Flatirons opened a $250,000 exhibit on climate change in June.

Trenberth said some scientists worry that the upcoming National Climate Assessment will be censored and changed to downplay the impacts of global warming.

“It’s likely not surprising that we hear a lot of anxiety about the future and uncertainty about what will be the budget directives or cuts coming from all the federal research labs,” Powers added. “The way that we’re helping to mitigate that is that we can share success stories, the return on investment in science in terms of job creation and other ways in which science comes out of the labs.”

Powers has the numbers to prove it, thanks to reports on the labs’ economic impact on the area that periodically are generated for CO-LABS by the University of Colorado Boulder’s Leeds School of Business. The last one was generated in 2013, and Brian Lewandowski, associate director of Leeds’ business-research division, said the next one may be issued later this month, but added that he expects the new figures to be similar to the old ones, which covered fiscal years 2011 through 2013.

According to that report, federal research facilities and their affiliates generated a total of $2.3 billion and accounted for 7,966 full-time part-time, contract and student jobs in Colorado as well as an additional 7,716 indirect jobs. Economic activity in Boulder and Larimer counties totaled $743.2 million and $148.2 million, respectively, in fiscal year 2012, the report said. Construction at the facilities topped $173 million that year, including new space and renovations such as a research support facility at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden and the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s 283,000-square-foot Precision Measurement Laboratory in Boulder, and resulted in an estimated 2,500 total construction and related jobs.

NIST, operated by the U.S. Department of Commerce, promotes U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science and standards. It also participates with CU-Boulder in JILA, formerly known as the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics, which has become one of the nation’s leading research institutes in atomic, molecular and optical physics.

NREL is the Department of Energy’s primary national laboratory for research and development for renewable energy and energy efficiency. “Companies can come in and use space at NREL and test their technology,” Lewandowski said. “It reduces barriers for businesses to commercialize their technology.”

NOAA, also under the Commerce Department, employs more than 1,000 people in Boulder and is more than weather forecasting. It also deals in fisheries management, coastal restoration and marine commerce support. Its Boulder-based Earth System Research Laboratory collaborates with CU, Colorado State University and other schools in studies of weather, climate change, water resources, air quality, and other aspects of the chemistry and dynamics of the atmosphere. It also operates the National Geophysical Data Center, a paleoclimatology branch, a Space Weather Prediction Center and three of the National Weather Service’s 122 weather-forecast offices — in Boulder, Grand Junction and Pueblo.

“Some people may dismiss this research, but they still don’t like floods coming through their downtowns,” Powers said. “The weather-prediction models allow Xcel Energy to ramp up or down their wind turbines, and that saved millions of dollars for Xcel’s customers.”

Powers pointed to Boulder-based Global Weather Corp. as a company that has benefitted from technology transfer from the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research.

“The UCAR Foundation helped found us,” said chief executive Mark Flolid. “Our focus was to provide better global forecasts that can be used commercially. We use technology developed out of NCAR. We are a commercial provider to many companies. Our first customer was Xcel, which uses our data to determine how much wind energy they’re going to produce every 15 minutes.”

GWC also is the data supplier to weather-application companies such as WeatherBug. AccuWeather and Yahoo! Weather. “The best way to think about us is that we’re the weather providers behind the weather providers.

“Today, one of our claims to fame is that there is a group called Forecast Watch. They record all the forecasts from the major weather suppliers and compare them to ‘ground truth,’ the actual info from ground stations. We’ve been No. 1 in the world since 2013.”

The relationship with NCAR “has been very valuable to us because of the technology developed there,” he said. “We can take that R&D capability and put it into a commercial environment in which we can deliver real-time forecasts.”

Trenberth said the labs’ research into the impacts of climate change is vital in Colorado, whether it’s the ski industry, agriculture, forest management or public safety. He pointed to the historic flooding of September 2013, which “not only broke records but smashed them.

“The year 2012 was the warmest on record, and 2016 was second warmest,” he said.

Trenberth said he’s concerned for UCAR, the parent of NCAR, which serves 100 member universities. “Many of the professors will have their funding put in jeopardy,” he said.

“The House Science Committee released its agenda, and one of the first things relates to NASA’s program. They want to protect NASA but not earth observations. This is crazy talk. It’s about managing forests, farms, water resources, all sorts of things. A lot comes from space-based instruments.”

He’s also concerned about Trump’s immigration restrictions. “Will we lose capabilities and expertise? France would love to have the U.S. climate scientists come and work for them.

“People are concerned — some much more concerned than others. A few are going out and demonstrating, but most of them are not. They’re adopting a wait-and-see attitude, and hopeful that it won’t be as bad as implications portend.”

Trenberth said high-level UCAR-NCAR management called a staff meeting for Feb. 8 to address the concerns. “But until decisions are actually made, we just don’t know. We don’t even have guaranteed funds beyond April 30. I don’t think upper management knows. This is not the way to run things. Any businessman will tell you, ‘Make a decision so I know how to manage things.”

According to the nonprofit American Association for the Advancement of Science, congressional committees already have approved large cuts in the House budget for programs related to climate research and renewable energy. It said the Commerce Department program that funds climate science at NOAA is slated for a 19 percent cut, while the National Science Foundation division of geosciences, which supports research at NCAR, would be cut 17 percent, the Energy Department program that includes NREL would get 13 percent less and NASA’s earth-science budget would see a 6 percent reduction.

Lewandowski agreed that it’s “too soon to see if there will be any Trump effect. A lot of it’s speculation. We don’t really know what’s going to happen. We can speculate, but it’s dangerous to speculate.”

But NCAR project scientist Ben Sanderson and Swiss colleague Retto Knutti published an analysis in December that warned that a four- or eight-year delay in mitigating climate change could lead to substantially exceeding global temperature limits for dangerous levels of emissions and concentrations, perhaps indefinitely.

“Delay is the worst enemy for any climate target,” they wrote, because if the United States were to drop its commitments to reduce carbon emissions and stop funding similar cuts in less-developed countries, other big emitters such as the European Union, China, and India might follow suit.

What can be done, agreed Powers and Lewandowski, is to continue to spread the news of the monetary boost the labs provide.

“There’s actually a lot of positive impact to be described,” Powers said. The Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade “recognizes this,” he said. “We’re working with OEDIT to formalize new communication strategies and through the Colorado Innovation Network created by Gov. John Hickenlooper five years ago. We’re fortunate that Sens. (Cory) Gardner, (Michael) Bennet and Rep. (Jared) Polis are not only aware but have been supportive of science-based research where we see translation of research out of the labs and into the private sector.”

The labs are armed with the science and the economic benefits of climate research, but they’re still struggling to forecast their future.

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