Hurricanes this century have cost thousands of Americans their lives and billions of dollars in damage; Hurricane Katrina alone killed 1,833 people and cost the government $108 billion.
Weather forecasting is of utmost importance to save lives, property, and money, especially in light of the changing climate. In a hearing held by the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, Subcommittee on Environment, scientists and professionals in the environmental technology industry discussed the potential for public-private partnerships to strengthen weather forecasting and to improve oceanic data collection.
Witnesses testified about technologies offered by the private sector that would aid in these two endeavors. Mr. Sebastian de Halleux (Chief Operating Officer, Saildrone, Inc) introduced Saildrone’s Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USV), which are capable of undertaking missions up to 12 months and use wind power for propulsion. Mr. de Halleux elucidated, “each USV carries a suite of sensors monitoring key environmental variables, covering the atmospheric, surface and sub-surface domains, including wind strength and direction, humidity, temperature, solar radiation, magnetic field, sea surface temperature, wave height and period, water temperature, salinity, biogeochemistry and ocean currents.” Besides removing human risk associated with operating manned oceanic vehicles, Mr. de Halleux described this groundbreaking (or, perhaps, surface-breaking) technology as a way to “cost-effectively augment existing U.S. government capabilities to better manage our country’s resources and prepare our population confronted with complex environmental challenges such as weather, fisheries, and environmental monitoring.”
Witnesses also spoke to the role federally-funded research has played in their advancements. Dr. Burke Hales (Professor of Ocean Ecology and Biogeochemistry, Oregon State University) is a biological oceanographer who works heavily with technology. He created autonomous robotic systems that “made sub-millimeter scale measurements of pH, oxygen and carbon dioxide in sediments miles below the sea-surface” and uses satellite observations to build ocean carbon cycling models. Using grants from NOAA and the National Science Foundation (NSF), Dr. Hales created systems of ocean carbon cycle measurements that he said “were unparalleled by any existing technology in the commercial sector.” Dr. Hales also highlighted his “extensive use of the regional observations” provided by NOAA’s Northwest Association of Networked Ocean Observing Systems (NANOOS) and the National Science Foundation’s Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI). Although some of these programs are on the chopping block in the president’s proposed Fiscal Year 2018 budget, Dr. Hales stated, “Each… are unique, but complimentary” and have been instrumental in his research.
The panel had stimulating ideas about the future of environmental technology, but there were unanswered questions about how privatization would work. Ranking Member Suzanne Bonamici (OR-1) dryly noted that she “hope[s] that in the future we can include NOAA when … we’re asking lots of questions about working with NOAA.” Federal investments often promote innovation by providing early funding and creating goals that market forces might not favor. However, Chairman Andy Biggs (AZ-5) hoped that partnerships “can decrease government costs and ensure that data streams continue to flow.”