News Archive

posted 11/01/05

The Creation of IRI

IRI Director-General Steve Zebiak. Photo credit: Bruce Gilbert

The catastrophic 1997-98 El Niño with an estimated $100 billion in global damages, struck a little more than a year after the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (at that time known as the International Research Institute for Climate Prediction) had begun looking at practical applications of new knowledge concerning the relationship between El Niño and seasonal climate around the globe. The IRI was created largely at the urging of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Global Programs and other international climate organizations. In contrast to other climate institutions, the IRI's mandate from the beginning was focused on practical applications of the climate knowledge being produced by accelerated research programs around the world. Its overall mission is to enhance society's ability to understand, anticipate and manage the impacts of climate fluctuations, particularly in the developing world. Steve Zebiak, IRI’s Director General, explains that the original idea grew out of a growing realization by the world’s climate science community that insights derived from the study of El Niño, make it possible to produce short-term climate predictions that were considered impossible in the past. “There was a feeling," says Zebiak,”that something should be done with the information.”

The 1997-98 El Niño not only served as a wakeup call to the potential damage that an El Niño can cause, it also proved to be a critical turning point in climate science. An earlier El Niño in 1982-83 had already been underway for several months before scientists realized that it was occurring. In contrast, the 1997-98 El Niño was predicted as early as April 1997 by NOAA and a month later, by other meteorological agencies in Australia and Japan. Several months of advanced warning enabled governments to take emergency precautions that saved thousands of lives. Even more significant for climate scientists, the 1997-98 El Niño marked the first time in history that computer modeling proved more effective than the analysis of previous weather patterns in accurately predicting what to expect.

For a long time, conventional wisdom had held that it was unlikely that anyone would be able to predict year-to-year climatic variations accurately enough to be of any practical use. But by the late 1970s, it had become apparent that ocean temperatures and rapidly changing atmospheric temperatures actually form a coupled system. By analyzing part of the system, it is possible to predict certain behaviors in other parts of the system. The key to revealing the entire system, scientists realized, was a phenomenon they named ENSO (for El Niño/Southern Oscillation). The Southern Oscillation is the change in surface air currents that accompany the El Niño. Although the more easily predictable El Niño and La Niña events are associated with extremes of weather, a new 2005 study by IRI scientist Lisa Goddard and former IRI scientist Maxx Dilley shows that climate anomalies during intervening periods have no less impact on societal loss.

By 1985, the scientific community had launched TOGA (Tropical Oceans/Global Atmosphere), a broad project aimed at developing physical/mathematical models of how temperatures were behaving in the tropical portion of the Pacific Ocean. This was quickly followed by TAO (Tropical Atmosphere Ocean), a project that positioned 70 fixed buoys across the Pacific to monitor ocean temperature to a depth of 1600 feet as well as atmospheric and wind conditions above the ocean’s surface. The information, beamed up to a satellite, would make it possible to get far more precise data on how the whole system operates. For these projects to come together in a meaningful way, an international institution would have to be created to disseminate the insights being produced from the mountains of data and to develop practical applications. At the United Nations Conference on Climate and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, a Brazilian climate scientist, Dr. A. D. Moura presented a plan for creating IRI. The next year, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration put up the funding for a pilot project. More than 100 scientists from 46 countries were recruited for climate training, and at a forum on IRI convened in Washington D.C. in 1995, the project received an enthusiastic green light from more than 300 scientists. After an intense open competition, a cooperative agreement was signed between Columbia University, Scripps Institute of Oceanography and NOAA on June 1, 1996. In June of 2000, and again in June of 2005, NOAA awarded Columbia University five-year term cooperative agreements. The IRI headquarters at the Lamont Campus of The Earth Institute at Columbia University, a 125-acre research and education complex that also is also home to Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, CIESIN, and the Tropical Agriculture Program, in Palisades, NY.

The Earth Institute at Columbia University is the world's leading academic center for the integrated study of Earth, its environment and society. The Earth Institute builds upon excellence in the core disciplines — earth sciences, biological sciences, engineering sciences, social sciences and health sciences — and stresses cross-disciplinary approaches to complex problems. Through research, training and global partnerships, it mobilizes science and technology to advance sustainable development, while placing special emphasis on the needs of the world's poor. For more information, visit