Establishing Regional Climate Centers, Illinois State Water Survey

Establishing Regional Climate Centers

The Illinois State Water Survey (ISWS) pioneered activities in climate services that significantly altered and improved the nation’s delivery of climate data and information, and also greatly enhanced their use and value for Illinois and the nation. Leaders at ISWS shaped the development of a network of regional climate centers, six institutions that have existed since 1989 and that facilitate climate services and applied research throughout the nation. This major achievement has resulted from three principal activities:

     1.    Developing the concept of regional climate centers and convincing regional agricultural interests to support that concept.

     2.    Obtaining federal funding to develop the first regional climate center as a 5-year demonstration project at the ISWS, serving as a model and rationale for developing other centers.

     3.    Promoting the development of a national network of regional centers that led to adequate federal funding, with centers ultimately established at the ISWS and five other institutions.

Developing the Regional Center Concept

Figure 1. Regional Climate Center Model   

Events that ultimately led ISWS scientists to conceive of regional climate centers were rooted in the development of the National Climate Program (NCP), enacted by Congress in 1978. Chief Ackermann and Section Head Changnon, ISWS, worked with Senator Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, a co-sponsor of the bill, and provided Congressional testimony in support of the bill on three occasions during 1976-1978.

The ISWS operated a first class climate services and research program with a State Climatologist, but many states did not after the Weather Bureau terminated its state climatologist program in 1972. The NCP Act established the National Climate Program Office (NCPO) inside the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), but NOAA subsequently provided only minimal NCPO programmatic funding. The NCP Act also contained a two key elements that the ISWS had promoted: 1) establishing the Intergovernmental Climate Program (ICP), a federal-state matching funds program to enhance climate services across the nation, and 2) enhancing applied climate research to better define impacts and relationships of climate to other activities, best done at state and regional levels.

The federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB) refused to fund the cost-sharing ICP, and ISWS scientists worked for three years to get this changed. Changnon, as president of the American Association of State Climatologists, urged pressure from state climate interests, but to no avail. Chief Ackermann and Changnon visited OMB several times, talked to Illinois members of Congress, and wrote documents to show that enhanced state climate services were in the national interest. One outcome was recognition of the paucity of information on the value and interest of climate data and information users. This led ISWS scientists to organize a major national project during 1981-1982 to assess the use and needs of private sector agricultural interests in climate data and information. This project, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and several agribusinesses, yielded valuable information showing considerable value of climate data and information, and also pointing to additional needs for near real-time access to climate data and information.

 Figure 2. The Class Schematic 

Frustration over the inability to get federal funding for state climate centers led Changnon to conceive of regional climate centers, having sufficient constituents and hence the power to get federal resources. The envisioned centers would have the scientific expertise and data facilities to serve as interfaces between federal climate data sources and state climate centers with the goals of enhancing state programs, and with strong user relationships, a capability to vastly improve regional climate information. Changnon was the University of Illinois representative on North Central Regional Agricultural Committee (NC-94), and he proposed the concept of regional climate centers to the committee’s representatives from 12 Midwestern states in fall 1980. The committee endorsed the concept, which Changnon then discussed with the NCPO and received further favorable responses.

Establishing the Illinois Regional Demonstration Center

The ISWS, operating under the auspices of the NC-94 Committee, prepared a proposal to conduct a 5-year demonstration program, serving as a “regional climate coordinating office” (RCCO). Changnon, who became ISWS Chief early in 1981, served as the project’s principal investigator, and the proposal was funded by the NCPO, and by state funds supporting ISWS staff working part-time at the RCCO. John Vogel was named RCCO director, and the center was launched in September 1981. Its objectives were to enhance the climate endeavors of the North Central states, to work with federal climate agencies, to develop computer-based systems for more effective data handling, and to demonstrate the feasibility of regional climate centers as permanent institutions in the nation’s climate system.

The Illinois test center had sufficient funds to pursue four activities:

      •    Working with state climatologists to conduct research on meaningful regional topics like drought and climate normals.

      •    Preparing proposals to get federal funds for needed data systems and for research projects. (The NCPO funds were inadequate to accomplish the stated objectives.)

      •    Assessing user needs for climate data and information.

      •    Developing data collection and management systems to enable more near real-time access to climate data for users.

The Illinois demonstration center was re-named the North Central Regional Climate Center (NCRCC) in 1984, and Wayne Wendland became its director in September 1984. An advisory committee of private sector and federal representatives, established in 1982, subsequently met annually and became strong NCRCC advocates. Considerable efforts to get enhanced funding for the NCRCC and the state climate programs were pursued, including numerous Washington-level interactions with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and NOAA. Some funds from NOAA were obtained to get microcomputers for each state center.

 Figure 3. The Class Schematic 

The NCRCC invested considerable effort to establish an Illinois-based real-time climate system to demonstrate what could be done at a regional level. With cooperation from the National Weather Service (NWS), daily connections were made with 55 of their Illinois weather stations, and these daily data were fed into an ISWS computer system containing all the state’s historical climate data. This allowed users with computers to access the Climate Assistance Service (CLASS) to obtain the previous day’s weather data and to assess conditions in light of the past 80+ years of historical data. High usage made CLASS a major success, and it ultimately served as the system model sought for the entire Midwest. A permanent Illinois-based regional center was established in 1986, and with significant additional funding, allowed the 1986-1987 development of a regional data management system. This regional system at the ISWS became the model adopted at the other emerging regional climate centers during 1988-1990.

The NCRCC demonstration project had become a successful “proof of concept experiment,” establishing the potential functions and value of a regional climate institution. ISWS leaders also undertook their second major activity—to get a national network of climate centers established.

Promoting Regional Centers Elsewhere

The RCCO/NCRCC leaders worked with climatologists in other regions to educate and promote the regional center concept. The Northeast Regional Agriculture Committee (similar to NC-94) was the first to accept the concept. A demonstration climate center for the 12 northeastern states was established at Cornell University, which NCPO funded in 1983, thus, forming the Northeastern Regional Climate Center (NERCC).

The NCPO had previously funded the University of Nebraska to establish and test a regional automated data collection network of stations in the four states of the northern High Plains in 1981. The University of Nebraska climatologists also liked the regional climate center concept, and got limited NCPO funding in 1984 to establish the High Plains Climate Center (HPCC).

By 1985, regional support for all three trial centers existed, but total funding available at the NCPO was only $200,000, not sufficient to support the growth necessary to achieve the primary functions of the three centers. Wendland and Changnon convinced leaders of the Desert Research Institute (DRI) that a western climate center was a good idea. When faced with no NCPO funding, DRI leaders sought and obtained Congressional add-on funding to NOAA’s FY86 budget (1985-1986) for a center at DRI. The Western Regional Climate Center (WRCC) was established in 1986.

At the end of the 5-year Illinois demonstration project in 1986, the ISWS sought to establish a permanent, well-funded center but lacked the funding, and NOAA was not interested in providing funds. The Governor’s Office gave Chief Changnon permission to seek add-on Congressional funding for a Midwestern Center. Interactions with Congressional members from Illinois and other Midwestern states were positive. The virtues of serving many users with better, faster climate data were obvious, and several agribusiness CLASS users also lent their support in Congress. Changnon and center leaders from Nebraska and Nevada sought an add-on to NOAA’s FY87 budget of $1 million for support of the Illinois-based center, the Midwestern Climate Center (MCC), designed to serve nine states, and for the HPCC and WRCC. The funds were added to NOAA’s budget and the three centers were established and well funded.

Changnon served as the first MCC director and together the leaders of the three centers sought to complete the national network of climate centers. In 1987, the NERCC became the fourth center, and additional Congressional funds were obtained. Changnon was invited to visit Columbia, South Carolina, to meet with the head of the South Carolina Water Resources Commission and other staff to discuss the center concept. The Commission was interested in hosting a center, sought and received Congressional add-on funding, and became the Southeast Regional Climate Center (SERCC) in 1988. After discussions with Changnon and Wendland during 1986-1987, interested geographers at Louisiana State University (LSU) sought and received Congressional funding for the Southern Regional Climate Center (SRCC), the sixth climate center at LSU in 1989.

Thus, by January 1, 1990, six new institutions provided climate services and research for the nation. Supervision of the regional center program was moved from the NCPO to the Climate Analysis Center (CAC) of the NWS in 1990, a reflection of the nationwide coverage by the centers and their importance in the climate services arena. In 1997 NOAA shifted the supervision of the regional climate centers program from CAC to the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC), a reflection the fact that the six centers’ activities were more closely interrelated with those at NCDC than those in the NWS.

From Demonstration Project to Permanent Center

Establishment of the Midwestern Climate Center (MCC) in 1986 brought the permanence and necessary funding to perform the functions well-defined by the 5-year demonstration project. Kenneth Kunkel became MCC director in 1988, followed by Steve Hilberg in 1998. The Illinois-based center name became the Midwestern Regional Climate Center (MRCC) in 2000.  

The MRCC (MCC) has focused on five regional activities that have continued since its establishment in 1986:

     1.    A top priority was to develop a regional data management and delivery system like the highly successful CLASS system. The Midwest Information Climate Information System (MICIS) was developed during 1987-1988 and became operational in 1989. In addition to data, MICIS contained sophisticated information products generated from complex models of soil moisture and weather-crop yields. Such products resulted from research based on user interactions. User-based fees also provided additional income to maintain the database system.

     2.    The Center launched and conducted regional research on climate impacts with some projects involving climatologists in the other eight states. Other sources of funds were sought and obtained for several research projects, including the Climate Impacts Experiment (CLIMPAX), a 4-year NSF-funded project.      

     3.    The Center has organized regional endeavors, conferences, and workshops. In concert with NCPO and Canadian agencies, the Center hosted and helped organize an international conference about the impacts of climate change in the Great Lakes basin in 1988. Special symposiums about the 1988 drought and 1993 flood were organized for at national conferences. Changnon also organized special workshops in Indianapolis and Boston for the six regional centers and NOAA leaders to better unify the activities of the centers.

     4.    Pioneering studies begun under the NCRCC continued and included working with users of climate data and information to assess their value and to determine unmet user needs for the Center to address. Users included agricultural interests, government agencies, the university sector, and water resource firms and agencies.

     5.    A major focus has included evaluating historical, pre-1900 databases under NOAA grants, plus assessments of all forms of non-NOAA weather data being collected by government agencies and private firms throughout the Midwest.

From 1986 to 2003, the Center has received approximately $4.3 million in federal funding, and user fees have generated nearly $1 million. The Center, a major ISWS institution is also of great value to Illinois and the Midwest. The history of the MRCC and the development of the other centers is a major achievement of the Illinois State Water Survey.


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