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Interview with Laura K. Furgione

Previous Deputy Director, National Weather Service

Why do you think Arctic science, research, and monitoring are important?
The National Weather Service (NWS), as NOAA’s major operations and services delivery arm in Alaska and the Arctic, relies on state-of-the-art science, research, and monitoring in order to meet our Weather-Ready Nation strategic goal. Alaskan communities, in particular, are at risk from extreme weather, water, and climate events; they must be prepared.  Partners and stakeholders in Alaska and the Arctic depend upon the NWS to consistently provide the environmental intelligence critical to the protection of life, property and decision making.  As such, the NWS Alaska Region is establishing an integrated services center, the Alaska Weather, Water, and Ice Center, or AWWIC.  The AWWIC will be equipped to expand regional services and enhance internal collaboration to better meet the emerging needs of partners, customers, and stakeholders in the region, including other NOAA line offices, state and Federal partners, and international partners in the Arctic.   Also, while Arctic science and research are important, the services and products derived from those efforts need to be tailored to make them more useful to those making critical decisions. The NOAA Arctic Test Bed was created to facilitate this transition of research capabilities into operational products and services.

What makes NOAA’s Arctic mission unique?
NOAA’s science, service, and stewardship mission uniquely positions the agency to provide the State of Alaska, Alaska native partners, industry and community stakeholders, and federal and other local officials with Arctic environmental intelligence — timely, reliable, and actionable information to help them plan for, and adapt to, economic and ecological impacts including natural disasters.  Additionally, changes are taking place in the Arctic faster than anywhere else on the planet and will serve as a global force multiplier.

What are the biggest challenges facing the Arctic and how can NOAA respond to them over the next decade?
The Arctic is where weather meets climate change.  The complicated linkages among melting sea ice, changing climate, and Arctic and global weather patterns are becoming more apparent, requiring improved planning opportunities to prepare for changes in the Arctic.  There is no doubt that climate change is transforming the Arctic into an increasingly accessible place for economic opportunity.  However, warming air and ocean temperatures, thawing permafrost, loss of sea ice, and shifts in ecosystems are straining community resilience and presenting significant challenges to public sector decision-makers and planners.  Critical environmental, economic, and national security issues are emerging, many of which have significant impacts for human lives, livelihoods, and coastal communities. These also include food supply issues (traditional hunting, fishing and gathering) for indigenous peoples.  In order to be able to address these issues, one of the biggest challenges facing all Arctic nations, and to which NOAA can make an enduring contribution, is the need to develop an enhanced, integrated, and sustained set of environmental observations that includes a spectrum of solutions from community-based and seasonal sources to polar orbiting and geostationary satellites.

Do you have any personal stories to share about the Arctic?
In 1994, I moved to my third office with the National Weather Service at the Weather Service Forecast Office (WSFO) in Fairbanks. Our office was focused on understanding the customer, and one of the best ways to do that was through familiarization (fam) flights.

My first fam flight was on September 1, 1994, from Fairbanks to Barrow to Deadhorse and back to Fairbanks aboard a Northern Air Cargo DC-6.  We took off from Fairbanks early that Thursday morning. Upon arrival, I stopped by Pepe’s North of the Border. Pepe’s was known for its fine Mexican food and as the holder of Barrow Polar Bear Club certificates. Yes, that’s right! While Northern Air Cargo was on the ground unloading their cargo, I joined the Polar Bear Club. I had imagined a hole in the ice that I could quickly jump into and run back inside. To my surprise, there was no ice in sight. Sea ice minimum typically occurs around Autumnal Equinox, or September 21. In turn, I had to wade out far enough on that gradually sloped beach to “willfully submerge in the Arctic Ocean.” The air temperature that day was 37 degrees Fahrenheit with a windchill of 15 degrees, so the water felt rather warm at 38 degrees.

I sprinted back to the restaurant and wrapped a warm, fuzzy blanket around me. Thankfully, Pepe’s provided ample warmth for me to quickly change, sign my certificate and be back on the DC-6 swing tail for our departure to Deadhorse. The pilots asked why I had a ball cap on and I told them what had transpired over the last 45 minutes. Luckily I had the polaroids to prove it.

That Polar Bear Club certificate is proudly framed and hanging on the wall across from my desk. It’s a constant reminder of that first fam flight and the importance of being “at one” with your customer…knowing what they know and do so that you can really understand their needs. That strikes at the very heart of the NWS mission and the Impact-Based Decision Support Services we provide in the Arctic and elsewhere. Hopefully it is a lesson we can all remember without having to freeze ourselves half to death!

Learn more about Laura K. Furgione here.

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