EPIC and its epoch.

Across the world, societies and their governments are straining to provide essential food, water and energy resources. They’re working at the margins of capacity. These efforts are hindered by hazards ranging from drought and wildfire to hurricanes. They’re compromised as well by other environmental threats such as the loss of biodiversity and changing patterns of habitat and land use (including the burning of large swatches of rainforest).

Disparities between haves and have-nots, internationally as well as in-country, are growing. So is awareness of these disparities on all sides, thanks to social media. As a result, populations are polarized, bad-tempered and irritable. Tensions are smouldering worldwide, from Hong Kong to Kashmir to the Ukraine to Turkey to Gaza, from Zimbabwe to Libya; from Venezuela to Central America. Violent local flareups are commonplace. In consequence, refugee populations are rising and today stand at 70 million – one in every one hundred people worldwide. Even across the nominally calm developed world tension is in the air as leaders sunder the restraining chains of their legislatures.  

 (“Thanks for the encouragement, Bill – as if anyone needed additional reminder of all that.”)

Please bear with me. That’s one depiction of the current epoch – the age in which we live.

But here’s another, from the more positive side.

New tools, new capabilities are coming online, at the very moment when they’re most needed to help institutions navigate an increasingly problematic world. The big one? Information technology, in all its guises. Computing power, to digest and store the staggering amounts of information that people and sensors are accumulating. Communications, the better to share data, news, facts, and opinion. Artificial intelligence, to leverage IQ of the human sort, draw inferences, detect and distinguish success and failure early, and much more.  More generally, IT holds potential to rebalance the role of institutions in favor of restoring individual-level agency – humans’ capacity to act independently and make their own free choices. IT is increasing the productivity and worth of virtually every human endeavor. That starts with public health and health care, education, and all manner of manufacture and services. Even better,  it extends as well to all those resource-, hazard-, and environmental concerns mentioned earlier.

Enter EPIC. In the midst of all this, America’s Weather, Water, and Climate Enterprise – that amalgam of individuals, corporations, universities, and government agencies working to advance Earth observations, science, and services –  is preoccupied with EPIC,  the new Earth Prediction Innovation Center being stood up by NOAA and its partners/stakeholders. A child of the Weather Research and Forecasting Improvement Act (enacted in 2017; reauthorized in 2019), EPIC was the subject of a 200-person workshop held August 6-8 in Boulder, Colorado. Participants developed a consensus:

Vision: Creating the world’s best community modeling system of which a subset of components will create the world’s best operational forecast model , and

Mission: Advance Earth system modeling skill, reclaim and maintain international leadership in Earth system prediction and its science, and improve the transition of research into operations.

Sample media coverage of the workshop can be found here and here.

A few closing observations[1].  First (and unsurprisingly) the EPIC initiative has been widely welcomed by all sides, including both those individuals and institutions directly party to it, and those in the larger community indirectly impacted by it.

Second, forecast skill as measured merely against the forecast skill of others is not the comparison that ultimately matters.  The real question is: how good is that forecast skill compared with societal needs: the needs of emergency managers? Agribusiness? The energy sector? Water resource managers? Transportation? Those requirements are essentially insatiable, and growing. Forecasting, like science more broadly, confronts Vannevar Bush’s Endless Frontier; there’s no end to the work to be done.

There’s an analogy here to the U.S. goal to put a man on the Moon by the end of the 1960’s, an achievement that enjoyed its fifty-year anniversary just last month. The United States wanted to finish first in this race, but the real goal was to demonstrate a broader U.S. technological capability that the free world knew it could count on for protection during the Cold War.

Third, in many respects, the challenges confronting forecast improvement exceed those of the Moon race – they’re more complex, intertwined, require more concerted and coordinated effort across a larger range of natural and social sciences and associated technologies, and broader societal involvement and participation.

Fourth, and finally, as improvements in forecast skill contribute directly and powerfully to worldwide goals of human safety, resource provision, and environmental protection, the greatest benefit will result not from any one of these, but rather from the associated lessening of current geopolitical tensions. Headway here can pave the way for progress across the whole of the global agenda.

[1] Full disclosure, and a disclaimer. The author is a member of the EISWG, the Environmental Information Services Working Group of NOAA’s Science Advisory Board, a FACA committee. The EISWG has been asked to make a letter report on EPIC to the parent SAB. By contrast, the observations here are personal views of the author alone, and should in no way be construed as reflecting the views of other EISWG members, or the EISWG as a whole, or the parent SAB.

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