Marty Hoerling of NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory.
On the television show, CSI, Raymond Langston leads a team of forensic scientists who investigate brutal crimes to figure out who committed them. In NOAA’s version of CSI, Marty Hoerling leads a group of climate and weather researchers who investigate killer climate patterns—heat waves, tornadoes, and floods—to figure out what may have triggered them.
Working with colleagues across NOAA, Hoerling created Climate Scene Investigators (CSI) in 2007, partly as a response to the chaotic media coverage that resulted after NOAA announced 2006 as the hottest on record for the United States. The annual average U.S. temperature was 55°F that year, fully 2.2° above the 20th century average, according to a NOAA news release that went out in January 2007. Urgent questions began pouring in from the media, and NOAA scientists responded with the best information they had at hand. But there had been no organized effort to examine all the evidence related to extreme events, or to figure out what factors were responsible, Hoerling said.
“Even within NOAA,” he said, “we presented many different opinions on the cause of the record heat. Some said the record heat was because of global warming, while others insisted that it was not.” Hoerling, a researcher in NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, noted that it quickly became clear that NOAA needed a team of experts who could investigate climate scene evidence and report findings to policy makers and the media in a timely manner.
The CSI team set themselves up to perform fast-response attribution work for future climate events. They armed themselves with computer models, historical data related to previous climate events, and recent observations that would help them understand the possible sources of unusual climate and weather patterns. Though it’s not possible to attribute any single weather event to one specific cause in our complex climate system, they were willing to use the available tools to investigate the probabilities that various climate factors contributed to extreme events.
Hoerling said he thinks of the attribution team’s work as “filling a gap” in NOAA. “Monitoring and prediction are two main branches of NOAA’s climate services. Sitting between them is the service of explaining possible causes of climate conditions, or attribution,” Hoerling explained. “Our fledgling NOAA-CSI effort at real-time climate attribution seeks to fill this gap. Our efforts help to explain the observed conditions, and those explanations help to inform predictions.”