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A CHAT WITH JIM O'BRIEN

By Patrick A. Smith

For more than three decades, his business has been the world's climate. These days, his business is a lot closer to home.

Florida's designated state climatologist has at least one trait that makes him a natural for the job—when it comes to talking about the weather, he's never at a loss for words.

And to his credit, James J. O'Brien likes to keep things as simple as he can. Talking to reporters as much as he does, he's become adept at putting complex science into language non-science types can appreciate.

He likes to tell a story about how he recently got Governor Jeb Bush's attention in a checkout line, and how, when O'Brien introduced himself, the Governor knew the man's research, if not the man.

As O'Brien good-naturedly challenged the governor's choice of purchases, Jeb Bush surely took note of the white hair and Santa Claus beard, the suspenders over a white Oxford shirt, and the glasses on a chain hanging over the trademark bolo tie.

Not flashy, but hardly a guy to forget having met. A lot of very good businessmen are like that, too.

And O'Brien is, among other things, a businessman who likes to see his FSU research enterprise run smoothly. On this particular day, Ruth Pryor, O'Brien's long-time assistant, is in a state of contented agitation over the number of funding proposals the office needs to put together in the next few weeks. Down the hall, David Zierden, assistant research climatologist, is busy working up a probability distribution for a fireworks company whose CEO wants to know if his business will suffer as much this year from unusually dry weather as it did last. When many municipalities banned Fourth of July fireworks, the company took a huge financial hit in 2000.

Seated at his desk, O'Brien is framed by mounds of seemingly randomly stacked papers in teetering piles. Eventually, he emerges with yet another funding proposal, this one seeking $600,000 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA. Moments later, he hangs up from a call that "might get us another $100K."

O'Brien directs FSU's Center for Atmospheric and Oceanographic Prediction Studies, a multidisci-plinary research unit that commands an annual budget approaching $3 million, almost entirely generated by federal grants. The center employs 15 full-time research scientists and numerous grad students. It's headquartered at Tallahassee's Innovation Park, located three miles from central campus.

Perhaps best known for his early, basic research into El Niño—arguably the most popularized climatological term in history—O'Brien these days wears a decidedly more service-oriented mantle. His role as state climatologist (not to be confused with state meteorologist, a label often associated with the head of Florida's Division of Emergency Management) is to capitalize on his team's in-depth knowledge of El Niño and computerized climate modeling techniques with an eye toward helping Florida cope with the vagaries of semi-tropical weather.

Few climate scientists still working can claim more professional accolades than Jim O'Brien. His many honors include membership in the Russian Academy of Science and in Norway's Academy of Science and Letters. In 1991, he was named Secretary of the Navy Professor of Meteorology and Oceanography. In 1999, he was named a Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor, Florida State University's highest faculty honor.

But now in his 33rd year at FSU, he says the achievement he's proudest of is his contributions to the lives of students. "I've directed 32 Ph.D.s and 50 master's students. And I've mentored 150 or more undergraduate students. For me, that's what it's all about."

INTERVIEW

RinR: Your program is called the Center for Ocean-Atmospheric Prediction Studies. What exactly is the "prediction" component of COAPS?

O'Brien: "Prediction" is a difficult word in science. If you're a meteorologist, you predict the weather when you tell people what's going to happen tomorrow or next month. Soon enough you'll know if you're right or not.

In the science we're doing, the word "prediction" is used differently. It means establishing a relationship between cause and effect. At COAPS, we want to establish the relationship between what has happened in the past and what is likely to happen in the near future.

Basically, we take the shift in probability distributions for temperature and precipitation and forest fires or hurricanes to say what is going to happen with those events.

A few years ago, I met Professor Jim Jones, an expert on computer models for agriculture at the University of Florida. He models artificial weather using a number of different factors—geography, planting day, herbicide treatments, quality of the soil, soil moisture — to predict crop yields.

Now what we're doing is coupling those agricultural models to our giant ocean/atmospheric land models, so the next step is to predict whether this will be a good year for crops.

In the mid-1980s, I got out of forecasting El Niño because I felt that other methods were better than mine. In the 1990s, we began to look instead at the impacts of El Niño and its counterpart, La Niña (taken together, known as ENSO, for "El Niño/Southern Oscillation"). That's the prediction aspect of what we do.

RinR: What does a state climatologist do?

O'Brien: We meet with lawyers and we go into the field with farmers. We talk to power companies and state agencies. We tell the Department of Agriculture how important this kind of research is for them. We talk to FEMA. We talk to the State Preparedness Agency.

The mood around here is very much toward not just doing "ivory tower" science—hard-core, basic physical sciences. When you're dealing with the environment, you have to take the next step which involves understanding how (weather) information impacts various segments of society.

Here in Florida that impact is enormous, in just about every aspect of life you can imagine. The example of the strawberry farmer is a good one, which shows how this information can apply to the individual. I advised a group of farmers that there was a very high probability that we were going to have clear-sky kind of weather, and one of them took the risk of planting a variety of berry that, under normal circumstances, wouldn't have given him as much yield. The weather was just as we had predicted, and he did much better than he would have otherwise. He outproduced the other farmers. That's the sort of grassroots application that this research can have in agriculture.

Another example. In 1999, when I was going on television twice a week to tell people what to expect with the wildfires, some people who could have made a difference thought the whole thing was nonsense. The government waited too long to act and ran out of money to fight the fires. When it gets to be tinder dry, you just can't put one man on a 400-acre piece of land to do controlled burns. Instead of spending $1 million and saving a lot of property, the state ended up spending nearly $100 million—a hundred times more than they had to. That's a big wake-up call.

My dream is that we figure out how to do it better. Two years ago, I didn't understand how to package my information to make it useful to the farmers. Now we know enough about the farmers' business that we can give them information that translates into dollars.

RinR: What's unique about the research here?

O'Brien: There are many climate variables—average winds, cloud cover, solar radiation, and humidity, for instance—that forecasters may be able to pin down once sophisticated climate models have improved enough to have sufficient long-range predictive capabilities. Average temperature and precipitation are the two most basic climate variables, though, and most climate forecasts focus only on temperature and precipitation. Those two variables, by far, receive the most attention when we study past climate, and most climate forecasts are based on them. COAPS and the Florida Climate Center are finding out all kinds of different things about how to treat that data.

For example, five years ago, we would make three-month forecasts of precipitation. Now, we've discovered a signal—a trend in a climate variable, in this case temperature or precipitation—so large that we can forecast individual months a year in advance. We can also tell any interested party six months in advance what the probability distributions are for rainfall in their area. Everything is a probability distribution.

We're doing a couple of things here that are done by very few other groups. The government tends to look at large climate regions, painting trends over large regions of the country in a broad-brush manner. A lot of people would like to see climate services and prediction done on a more regional basis, but that's a long way off for the national agencies.

So, what we try to do here is to "downscale" things, to bring to bear all we know about climate trends and a specialized knowledge of ENSO to tailor information for regional and local areas. Farmers, power companies, engineering firms, and other folks desperately need to know expected amounts of rainfall during a given time period, for example, not just that precipitation or temperature will be above or below average. The importance of all this work, of course, is that we translate our research into practical information that every Floridian can use.

RinR: How does El Niño research figure into projections for Florida's climate?

O'Brien: Our work in climate forecasting (for Florida) involves analyzing the past impacts of ENSO at individual (weather) stations around the state, then using that information to forecast temperature and precipitation up to a year in advance.

There are over 80 long-term stations in Florida alone, so we can select one that is nearby and climatologically similar to someone's area of interest. We take each individual weather station—hopefully with data that stretches over at least 50 years—and treat it as an entity in itself, rather than grouping things in terms of state lines. Climate across a state, of course, can be quite different from one side to the other, especially in Florida—Tallahassee and Miami, for instance. If we're getting the same response to El Niño over a lot of neighboring stations, then we're more confident in our predictions.

That we look at individual stations—again, as opposed to NOAA, which looks at "macroscale" trends, the bigger picture— is important, because changes in elevation, proximity to the coast, and soil types, among other factors, can have large effects on local climate, and these distinctions are blurred over in NOAA's forecast.

We also believe it's important to provide monthly forecasts, as opposed to the three-month forecast that NOAA prefers. For example, the typical La Niña rainfall pattern in Florida is drier than normal in the months of November to April, then switches to wetter than normal in the month of May and June. The three-month averaging done by NOAA in their forecasts smooths out this change and information is lost.

We've also developed a method for forecasting the Keetch-Byram Drought Index (KBDI)—a measure of moisture in the top layers of the soil based on daily maximum temperatures and precipitation. Foresters use it extensively as a measure of wildfire risk.

RinR: When El Niño comes along, the media coverage is incessant. But once it's gone, it's forgotten. Why are people slow to pick up on the fact that ENSO can have a profound effect on their lives from one year to the next?

O'Brien: It's all about the message that people hear. One thing that distracts a lot of scientists from picking up the ENSO message and spreading it is global warming. A large number of people who study such things are obsessed with what's 50 or 100 years down the road, but El Niño and La Niña—the year-to-year events—are simply the single biggest climate events that Florida has to deal with.

If you don't understand the year-to-year variability, you'll never understand the very slow trends (involved in) global warming.

Also, we tend to think globally when it comes to the marketplace and selling—look at the Soviet Union or China—but when it comes to weather and climate, we're more isolationist. Congressmen are more interested about what's happening in their home town than in other places.

RinR: How does your research relate to hurricanes?

O'Brien: We've known for 50 years that in some years you have a lot of hurricanes and some years fewer, but no one really ever knew why. We showed how El Niño suppresses hurricanes in the Atlantic and how La Niña spawns more hurricanes in the Atlantic.

With this big drought that we've had for three years, I'm telling everybody that in Florida we actually need hurricanes, singular events that dump a lot of water on us, to maintain our normal water supply. You try to educate people about the importance of hurricanes—there's just not much you can do about the property damage.

RinR: NOAA has predicted a "neutral year" for ENSO activity for 2001-2002. How will that effect Florida?

O'Brien: For the lakes and ponds to fill up, we need a couple of good tropical storms, since we're not expecting El Niño for the coming year, but rather something neutral. Usually in an El Niño, we get a couple of extra inches of rain. The rain that we get in the coming year will be enough to keep agriculture going fine, but it won't acerbate the 50-inch deficit that we've run in Tallahassee in the last three years with La Niña conditions. In fact, the whole state is well below average. A couple of sloppy tropical storms might give you 10 inches each. Those, you might say, are related to ENSO. The fact that we won't have an El Niño this year probably means that we'll have a good number of hurricanes, so that may help us out. We're not looking for another Andrew, mind you, we're just looking for some rain.