In the News
Keeping our focus on what matters most
Thursday, March 15, 2007
(Originally published in The Oregonian)
Fish don't recognize state lines, but it's in part because of them
that the Pacific Ocean binds Washington, Oregon and California
together with the two states of Baja, Mexico.
The major north-south flow called the California Current originates
on the West Coast near the latitude of Seattle-Tacoma International
Airport, then proceeds southward. The current is a diverse ecosystem
that is home to marine creatures ranging from salmon to scallops
that are vital to the economies of all these states. It influences
our climate as well.
An array of Earth-observing satellites that measure ocean winds,
temperatures and productivity have greatly advanced what we know
about this current. For instance, the QuikSCAT satellite provides a
history of wind speed and direction that is essential for
understanding its circulation. The SeaWiFS sensor has measured the
abundance of phytoplankton off the West coast for nearly a decade,
and a series of ocean altimeters has measured ocean currents there
for more than 15 years.
Before these satellite systems, we had a primitive understanding of
the interplay of events that govern the health of fisheries. With
better information about these complex processes, we can better
understand the current's ecosystem and develop more effective
But there's a problem. QuikSCAT is already past the expected end of
its service life. We don't know how much longer it will last.
Realistically, a successor is 10 years away.
Similarly, phytoplankton measurements may not be continued with
sufficient accuracy to detect the subtle interplay between ocean
circulation and productivity. Science programs including the
proposed Pacific Coast Ocean Observing System will lose a major part
of their ability to see the California Current from space.
A recent report by the National Research Council noted that our
satellite observing system is in danger of collapse. NASA, the
operator of many of these satellites, is turning away from Earth to
focus funding on moon and Mars missions. Already the agency's budget
for science missions has declined 30 percent. That trend will
continue unless we change course.
We're entering a period in which we need satellites more than ever
to know what's happening in nature. The West is threatened by rising
sea levels, strains on water stored in the Cascades and Sierra
Nevada snowpacks, and climate shifts that could turn fertile
But other developments give cause for hope. The three governors of
the West Coast states aren't waiting to take action against the
threat of climate change. Washington's Chris Gregoire, California's
Arnold Schwarzenegger and Oregon's Ted Kulongoski have already
united on several environmental initiatives. With Arizona and New
Mexico leaders, they are attempting to set regional emissions
Western states are leading the nation in a regional response to
climate change. They should also take the lead in calling for
continued federal investment so that our eyes in space continue to
focus on our home planet, and not neglect Earth in favor of space
missions that, while inspiring, are not urgent.
The climate change we're experiencing is the most critical problem
planet Earth has ever faced. The West needs to deliver that message
with one voice.
Tony Haymet is director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography
at the University of California at San Diego. Mark Abbott is dean of
the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State