Acting NOAA Administrator Dr. Kathryn Sullivan gives keynote address at Capitol Hill Oceans Week

Posted June 6, 2013

“Healthy Oceans and Coasts For a Resilient America”
Welcome and Opening Keynote Address
Capitol Hill Oceans Week
Newseum in Washington, D.C.
Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Kathryn D. Sullivan, Ph.D.
Acting Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator

Remarks As Delivered

 

Thank you, Jason [Patlis].

Welcome everyone!  What a great turn out! Over 700 registrants. What a great turn out.

Believe it or not, this is my first time at CHOW. It didn’t exist when I served as NOAA’s Chief Scientist in the early ‘90s, much though we needed such a forum.

This is CHOW’s 13th year of convening important conversations about our oceans. Hats off to all of you and the organizations you represent for making CHOW a success year after year! Special kudos to the National Marine Sanctuaries Foundation team for making CHOW happen again this year! May there be many more Capitol Hill Oceans Weeks ahead.

As we gather here during National Oceans Month, I want to take a moment to honor three veteran champions of the oceans, who we lost since last CHOW.

We at NOAA were very saddened to learn of Senator Frank Lautenberg’s passing yesterday. The good Senator was a true statesman and advocate for his constituents and the oceans. He sponsored the Ocean Dumping Act of 1988 and Deep Sea Coral Protection Act. He was also a pioneer in efforts to protect shorelines and critical habitats.

Senator Daniel K. Inouye, another of our great leaders, passed away in December. He was a devoted champion of the oceans and of NOAA’s mission. He sponsored or was instrumental in key federal legislation that today works to protect our citizens and conserve the nation’s ocean resources.

Last year, we also gave our final salutes to Admiral James Watkins. He left a rich legacy of major ocean leadership contributions, most recently, “An Ocean Blueprint for the 21st Century.”

With their first glimpse out the window, every astronaut grasps a profound truth that these ocean leaders clearly knew: that we are citizens of an ocean planet (perversely named “Terra” rather than “Aqua”); that our very existence and the quality of our lives depend critically on the health of our ocean. Daniel Inouye, James Watkins and Frank Lautenberg brought this understanding to life in their individual visions for a healthy ocean — in ways that we will continue to benefit from and build upon for decades to come. We will miss them greatly.

In one way or another, every one of us in this room is moved by a vision of healthy oceans. Every year, Capitol Hill Oceans Week brings us together across interests to share our respective visions, connect our energies and combine our expertise. The conversations that take place at CHOW bring to life the vision of those who crafted the National Ocean Policy — a vision framed by science, and in which people are part of — not separate from dynamic ecosystems; one in which people participate actively in dialogues that underlie the decisions that ultimately define how we live with our ocean and marine ecosystems. This science-informed dialogue can help shape the future of the ocean that is linked so inextricably to the vitality of our communities and our livelihoods.

The nation’s first-ever Ocean Policy, along with the recently released Implementation Plan, signal some of the progress we’ve made in recent years in establishing the frameworks that set the stage for better management  of our the oceans and coasts. Other encouraging signals in the policy arena include the Gulf of Mexico Regional Ecosystem Restoration Strategy, the National Strategy for the Arctic Region, and the National Fish, Wildlife, and Plant Climate Adaptation Strategy.

These new policies set the foundation for much-needed progress. Despite these encouraging steps forward, we still face real-world challenges on many fronts: an ever-growing  tally of and toll from natural disasters; the prospect of a busier Arctic, and concerns about preparedness for oil spills and other potential impacts of resource development there; a number of fishery disasters, including Northeast groundfish, Alaska Chinook salmon, and Mississippi oyster and blue crab fisheries; Hurricane Sandy added to the roster of fishery disasters; the slow pace of establishing Marine Protected Areas — only about 8 percent of all U.S. waters are in an MPA [marine protected area] focused on conserving natural or cultural resources (This figure excludes fishery MPAs); and more.

These challenges are made more daunting by current budget and resource pressures.

NOAA brings many things to the table to tackle these challenges. Most notable is the strength of our science along with our unique combination of science, service and stewardship. Our mission extends literally from the surface of the sun to the bottom of the sea. Our job is to build an understanding of the Earth, the atmosphere, and the oceans and to transform that understanding into critical environmental intelligence: timely, actionable information, developed from reliable and authoritative science, that gives us foresight about future conditions; that can inform the myriad decisions we confront each and every day as we live our lives and craft our livelihoods on this very dynamic planet … decisions that determine our comfort and our safety, and affect the immediate profitability and long-term sustainability of communities and businesses. Just like the “intelligence” of the security world, this environmental intelligence combines data, information, analysis, modeling, and assessment.

Recent events — the devastating tornadoes and flooding in Oklahoma this past week and Hurricane Sandy last October, to name just two — have renewed an emphasis on resilience as a national imperative. The National Academy of Sciences defines resilience as “the ability to plan and prepare for; absorb; recover from or more successfully adapt to adverse events.” Resilience goes beyond preparedness; it makes us better able to take the blow and rebound readily. This is the sense in which I will use the term today. This is a welcome and promising way forward.

Today, I am going to use coastal zones as the point of departure for my discussion: I will reflect upon the central role that oceans and coasts play in the resilience of this Nation. I will then focus on the role that environmental intelligence plays in fostering resilience, highlighting NOAA’s key role and activities to supply this intelligence. And I will close with some thoughts about what’s needed in the broader landscape of resilience.

So, what do healthy oceans and coasts have to do with resilience?

Let me start with a historical note. When this nation was still young, in 1807, President Thomas Jefferson expressed his ocean vision for the country when he established The Survey of the Coast, the Nation’s first scientific agency and a founding entity in NOAA’s history. Jefferson — along with the Congress that passed the bill with little debate — recognized that charting our oceans and coasts would protect the "lives of our seamen, the interest of our merchants and the benefits to revenue," as one Congressman put it. America’s charting efforts also were and still are essential to establishing maritime boundaries. Coincidentally or not, on the same day that Jefferson signed the Survey of the Coast bill, he also sent a letter to Congress asking for shallow gun boats to defend our coasts and ports.

Today, these and other oceanic connections to societal resilience remain.

Given the dense population along our coastlines, their considerable contributions to the nation’s GDP, and the vulnerability of this region to increasingly frequent extreme weather events and other oceanic hazards like tsunamis, it is clear that any concept of resilience in this country must focus strongly on coastal resilience.

One of the most critical enablers of this vision of resilience is foresight: the ability to look ahead, to envision and plan for future conditions quite unlike the present or the past. As I said earlier, this is where environmental intelligence comes in. Robust observations, sound scientific understanding of Earth system processes, rigorous analysis, and modeling and assessment are essential to providing this vital environmental intelligence.

What is the critical environmental intelligence telling us so far?

Resilience is not just about what we measure or know; it is about how and whether we use that knowledge to act. It’s about taking the concept off the pages of policy documents and reports, and putting it into action in our communities.

Hurricane Sandy provided some powerful lessons on this point last October. Sandy was much more than a weather phenomenon. Sandy was a case study — with both positive and negative examples — of the vital importance to our nation of coastal resilience.

Sandy demonstrated again something we know well: Preparedness matters, and foresight is key to preparedness.

But Sandy thrust some stark realities into the spotlight.

Sandy hit New York hardest right where the most recent developments had occurred. Lower Manhattan should have been the least vulnerable part of the island. But it was not rebuilt to be resilient, just “sustainable” green buildings in an energy efficiency sense. Buildings were designed to generate lower environmental impacts, but not to be resilient to the impacts of the environment.

At Old Cape May in New Jersey, sections of the town behind the restored coastal wetland and dune area fared much better during Sandy than sections hard onto the beach that relied on gray infrastructure alone for protection. Green infrastructure — nature’s own defenses — are too often overlooked in coastal planning and development.

We don’t recognize coastal storms as the multi-hazard events they are. People don’t die from wind in a hurricane, they die from water — both surge from the sea and inundation from rainfall. Irene’s upland rainfall surprised many and cost lives. Sandy’s storm surge, which rose well over 8 feet above ground level in some locations, also surprised many and cost even more lives.

The social dimensions of resilience were all too vividly apparent during and after Sandy. The elderly and poor suffer longer. Elderly people often live alone and tend to live in more dangerous places — everyone dreams of retiring near the beach or along the river, right? And they are more likely to die in an event like Sandy.

The lessons? First, the inherent resilience of natural systems provides powerful protection. We should restore them wherever possible. Second, we must factor future risk into our infrastructure planning — both gray and green. We must find ways to incentivize investments that take this into account, given that short-run solutions cost more in dollars and cents than planning for long-term risk. Third, resilience has a critical social dimension: citizen preparedness, bonds of community, strong and empowered institutions are indispensable elements of societal resilience.

Sandy also reveals that resilience can be considered on multiple time scales — from the days and hours needed to prepare for hurricane landfall to the years and decades needed to restore green infrastructure, our natural defenses — and build more resilient gray infrastructure.

Coastal communities around the United States are working to become more resilient on these various scales, very often drawing on NOAA’s environmental intelligence and coastal expertise. The progress is encouraging.

Lake Erie has been plagued by a steady increase of harmful algal blooms (HABs) over the past decade. HABs can kill fish, foul coastlines, and make us sick. NOAA has issued weekly bulletins for HABs in Lake Erie since 2008. To assist communities in responding to this, NOAA uses high time-resolution satellite imagery from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) satellite sensor to develop a forecast that gives them up to 3 days advance warning of a bloom.

NOAA issued its first seasonal ecological forecast of HABs in 2012, accurately predicting a mild bloom for the 2012 summer season. This forecast helped managers in the Great Lakes make decisions about the state’s 2012 tourism season, as well as its water quality management.

In Alaskan waters, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council decided in 2009 to prohibit expansion of commercial fishing in U.S. federal waters in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas until the scientific basis for fisheries management decisions could be established.

As we all know, the decrease in summer sea ice means the Arctic is becoming a busier place. The prospect of much more shipping — possibly trans-oceanic commercial traffic — brings back to the foreground the same fundamental environmental intelligence that moved Jefferson to establish the Survey of the Coast: the need for accurate nautical charts. Until just recently, the only chart available for Kotzebue Sound was a 19th century chart with 3-5 mile resolution. The shoreline has changed radically in this area since the 1800s, and modern-day coastwise traffic demands much finer resolution. NOAA completed a new chart for the region just last May. We also sent the NOAA Ship Fairweather into the Chukchi Sea to re-chart waters off Alaska’s north coast. Re-charting our Arctic waters is a central element of the U.S. Arctic Strategy announced by Secretary Kerry at the recent Arctic Council meeting in Kiruna, Sweden.

Arctic ERMA, a new federal interactive online mapping tool used by emergency responders during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill has been expanded to include the Arctic and will help address numerous challenges in the Arctic posed by increasing ship traffic and proposed energy development.

The signing this past May 15 of an International Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Spill Preparedness and Response by eight nations (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, Sweden and the United States) shows the international recognition of the need for Arctic resilience.

Protection of natural environments is producing both economic and ecological benefits In the Florida Keys. Since “no-take” protections were established in the Tortugas Ecological Reserve within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary back in 2001:

These data show that marine reserves and economically viable fishing industries can coexist. The health of our economy and the health of our oceans are not mutually exclusive.

Ocean acidification is a serious threat to shellfish and mariculture enterprises in U.S. coastal waters. Pacific Northwest shellfish growers have already felt the impacts. In 2008, the harvest of one major Oregon supplier to the majority of West Coast oyster farmers plummeted 80% due to acidified seawater. Oyster production accounts for more than $84 million and hundreds of jobs in the West Coast shellfish industry, which supports more than 3,000 jobs. Such precipitous declines can have devastating effects on coastal communities.

NOAA is working to provide shellfish farmers with environmental intelligence that can help them manage this risk. NOAA/IOOS® systems in Puget Sound monitor ocean pH and alert shellfish farms so they can adapt operations accordingly — a great example of critical environmental intelligence as essential Business Intelligence. And, it is a great example of resilience.

I have emphasized that foresight is key to resilience:

… foresight to prepare in the days ahead or grab your go-kit hours before an event.
… foresight to develop a climate change adaptation plans, based on the best available Earth science, sound social science and pertinent community data that enable communities to plan for future risks due to coastal storms, heat waves, flash flooding and other hazards.
… foresight of decades or more to develop a hardened built environment and green infrastructure.
… foresight to understand that vulnerability also is about our choices to live in coastal communities. Today 23 of 25 of the most densely-populated communities are coastal.
… foresight to build communities in areas vulnerable to storm surge not just 10 years from now, but a century from now.
…and, not least, the foresight that citizens and leaders need to foster social resilience, to strengthen community institutions and to prepare every citizen to be a competent first responder.

As cities, states and regions create and revise climate change adaptation plans, having fabulous environmental intelligence is necessary but not sufficient. We’ve learned this lesson in the weather arena. The information must be readily accessible to non-expert decision-makers, media partners and citizens, and delivered in forms and formats that communicate clearly the information they need to build answers to their questions (This is often quite different than the information that the experts thought was important or cool to convey!). In other words, the critical environmental intelligence product and tools for interacting with it are of comparable importance to the intelligence itself. NOAA is working hard in this arena as well.

Tools like Digital Coast can help communities look at future sea level rise in their communities and other potential impacts. Five years ago, NOAA’s Coastal Services Center launched the “Digital Coast” initiative to address timely coastal issues, including climate change. One of Digital Coast’s tools, the Sea Level Rise Impacts Viewer, creates visualizations of the potential physical, ecological and socioeconomic impacts of sea level rise in order to inform the planning efforts of community officials and coastal managers.

While the need for good geospatial data forms the foundation of the Digital Coast, the basic premise of the site is: Data alone are not enough. People need the associated tools, training and information that turn data into information capable of making a difference. And people want this information in one connected package that is easy to use. Digital Coast does just that.

Users who make up the Digital Coast Partnership provide feedback and guide the development of the site. They let the Center know what issues were most important, what type of content they would find most helpful, and the primary barriers they needed addressed. These are tools build to answer questions people ask, not just what we want to tell them.

These tools are currently being applied in Texas and Mississippi and are serving as the basis of a new partnership with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to better understand and prepare for the potential impacts of sea level rise on vulnerable populations, infrastructure and ecosystems in Galveston, Texas.

Another tool, the Social Vulnerability Index, maps the locations of those at higher social risk during a disaster. When social vulnerability maps are overlaid onto inundation maps, the composites can help identify where help might be needed most during response and longer during recovery.

A vision of local empowerment is starting to take shape in places like the Gulf of Mexico. Here The Nature Conservancy and the National Capital Project are using a promising new tool called Marine InVEST (Integrated Valuation of Ecosystem Services and Trade-offs) to evaluate how restored oyster reefs can best protect shorelines from coastal hazards, such as storm surge, while stimulating a recovering fisheries economy. About half of the Gulf’s coastal habitats vanished during the past century. The devastating impacts of Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill have lent new urgency to restoring Gulf coasts. Marine InVEST was developed by the Natural Capital Project in partnership with NOAA to facilitate scientific understanding of ecosystem services — and then to help communities make better real-world decisions. InVEST allows users to “test” possible outcomes of different decisions, visualizing trade-offs among environmental, economic and social benefits.

With the latest version of the InVEST coastal protection model, the National Capital Project and The Nature Conservancy are calculating the potential of restored oyster reefs of various designs and in various places for reducing wave height and wave energy in coastal areas. To reach a larger audience, they are working to incorporate aspects of the InVEST coastal protection model into The Nature Conservancy’s interactive web-based mapping application, Coastal Resilience — the only decision-support tool in the Gulf of Mexico region that explicitly addresses ecological and social considerations together. Coming full circle, NOAA is now helping extend the reach of the Coastal Resilience tool through its Digital Coast partnership to provide restoration and coastal inundation issues training to help stakeholders use the information for maximum results.

On the green infrastructure front, NOAA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have developed guidelines to help coastal communities rebuild in a more resilient and sustainable fashion, so they are better able to mitigate the impacts of coastal hazards. We developed a “Principles” document that lays out a unified strategy for our post-Sandy coastal restoration activities. These Principles recognize inter-linkages between natural and ecological systems and the resiliency of physical infrastructure and community well-being. The President’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force is referring to the Principles as an example of how to rebuild the coast in a sustainable way. And NOAA is currently developing projects with Sandy Supplemental funds that will support implementation of the Principles.

Each of these activities is a sign of progress in the right direction.

I will close with some thoughts about what’s needed on the broader landscape of resilience. We still have much to do.

We need a resilient observations enterprise. Observations are either not enough, as we see in the Arctic. Or they are aging, like the TAO array that provides the CEI for El Niño and La Niña prediction. An aging infrastructure make us more vulnerable than resilient.

Higher-resolution climate models are needed to provide better regional to local guidance, as well as coastal and marine ecosystem modeling.

We don’t really have our hands around ecosystem modeling. We need integrated ecosystem assessments that link cause and effect.

We need data to be discoverable, accessible and inter-operative. The White House Open Data Policy provides the framework to accomplish that. And ocean.data.gov provides a data portal to make it possible. But data also must be interoperable and integrated to be useful as foresight.

Research on green infrastructure is needed to build the right infrastructure in the right places in coastal communities.

We need more data fusion tools, like Digital Coast, that integrate data and allow people to build the answers they’re seeking, not just what we want to tell them. And we need these tools to make multi-user collaborative interaction possible.

So when we think of resilience for our oceans and coast, we must remember the enterprise that provides the critical environmental intelligence for resilience must itself remain resilient in the face of change — we need a “whole of community” approach, not merely federal actions.

In summary, coastal resilience is a national imperative that can be implemented at the level of communities. Resilience can mean preparedness on a short fuse, as in preparing for an immediate storm, but it also is a resilience for the future, a resilience that can be found in smart advance planning — the gray, the green, and the social.

The National Ocean Policy places before us a framework that is genuinely centered in a vision of oceans “of the people, for the people, and by the people.” Local and regional efforts to build community resilience are beginning to take shape. But the challenges remain daunting; the economic headwinds remain fierce.

Such circumstances never seemed to faze Jim Watkins, Dan Inouye or Frank Lautenberg. When times got tough, they dug deeper and redoubled their efforts; and so must we. The passion and talents in this room are tremendous national assets. CHOW gives us a fabulous opportunity to come together to develop smarter solutions for broader good.

Our beautiful planet “Aqua” was what I woke up to every morning and fell asleep to at the end of my day during my three missions on the Challenger. The profound reality that hits all of us who’ve flown in space: The singularity of this blue planet we call home. How inextricably each and every one of us is linked to all others and to the planet itself. How powerfully dynamic and, at the same time ineffably elegant, are the earth systems that support our existence. How trivial are the boundaries and distinctions we work so hard to draw between “us” and “them” — when in reality there is only We Earthlings. And We Earthlings depend on healthy oceans for our own well-being and for the well-being of our communities, businesses and economies.

CHOW offers a great forum for beginning larger conversations. Let’s keep talking and, most importantly, keep listening to one another.

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