The Washington Post

National Weather Service budget cuts misguided, misplaced

The NOAA fiscal year 2013 budget request (page 7), included in the Obama Administration’s submission to Congress, calls for more than $2 billion dollars for the agency’s weather satellite programs, an increase $163 million from 2012. Not surprisingly, the increase means other areas within NOAA are slated for decreased funding. Of interest here is that the President’s 2013 budget for the National Weather Service (NWS) reduces funding by $36.4 million in operations and research (page 4-63)

Is there something wrong with this picture of enormous investments for satellites at the expense of relatively miniscule costs of valuable components of NWS’s operational mission? In the opinion of many, including myself, the answer is a confident yes.

One striking way to look at this is to note that $2 billion for weather satellites is more than twice that of the entire NWS ($972 million)! Moreover, the casualties of the 2013 budget cuts are just the tip of the iceberg of implicit budget constraints (not actual cuts) imposed for years by satellite programs on other promising and much less costly programs within the NWS.

This does not mean weather satellites are not crucial for weather analysis and prediction. They most definitely are.

The global menagerie of earth observing satellites ( Committee on Earth Observing Satellites )

The answer is yes and no depending upon whether their intended contribution to specific operational forecasting needs and requirements are justifiable. This includes consideration of mission redundancy (with other satellite systems) and the capability to provide additional information otherwise unobtainable which demonstrably contributes to improving weather predictions and their value to mission specific objectives (e.g., increased lead time and confidence in winter storm forecasts, conditions conducive for outbreaks of thunderstorm complexes and tornadoes).

The reality is there is considerable reason to believe that the uncompromisingly high priority given to some high price-tag satellite programs is not justifiable. Claims to their criticality to forecasting have been excessively hyped and not sufficiently substantiated. I’ll discuss this in additional detail in a follow-up blog post, Part II.

Consider, for now, the explicit casualties of the 2013 NWS budget cuts, victims of NWS insistence that satellites are by far its highest priority.

Among the programs affected – and seemingly the most prominently mentioned objections in media and blogs (e.g. here) - is elimination of the Information Technology Officer (ITO) at each of the NWS 122 Weather Forecast Offices (WFO). ITOs are responsible for assuring the operability of existing and new hardware, software, and communication systems necessary for effective and efficient provision of routine WFO products and services. As trained meteorologists (aside from being just “techies”) they also provide essential backup and support to the routinely understaffed (“fair weather” staffing) WFOs when extreme weather scenarios might otherwise become overwhelming and potentially lead to significant degradation updates and warnings in severe weather situations.

To replace the local ITOs NWS plans to retain 24 regional (more widely dispersed) ITO positions it uncompromisingly claims will be able to perform the work of the current cadre of 122. Suffice to say this claim justifiably (in my opinion) is strongly disputed by WFO personnel, as well as and local user communities (e.g., TV broadcasters, emergency managers) counting on the timeliness and quality of WFO guidance.

Another casualty of the NWS 2013 budget proposal is elimination of funding for the National Mesonet. The National Mesonet is a nationwide, integrated system of individual and otherwise disconnected federal and non-federal networks of surface atmospheric monitoring sensors at the county and local scale.

Up until this year NWS considered the Mesonet a high priority project intended, for example, to improve real-time detection and short-term prediction of weather, especially high-impact phenomena such as flash floods, the divide between rain and snow during winter storms, and the sharp boundaries in atmospheric properties (e.g., temperature, winds, moisture) associated with explosive outbreaks of severe convective storms (thunderstorm complexes and tornadoes). Without NWS support, it’s unlikely that the National Mesonet will continue to expand and retain its value as a one stop shop for an integrated quality-controlled set of observations.

[An irony is that despite proposed elimination of funding of the National Mesonet, NOAA leadership continues to advertise its importance. Mary E. Kicza, NOAA’s Assistant Administrator of the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service and Vice Chair of the NOAA’s Observing Systems Council testified the following this week (March 28) at a Congressional hearing:

NOAA continues to pursue agreements with owners and operators of local/regional observing networks, whenever possible and cost effective, to create and leverage a national “network of networks.” NOAA’s assets are foundational and provide the backbone for a network of local/regional observing capabilities”.]

Also targeted by the budget ax is reduced funding to maintain the buoys used for tsunami warnings. NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco claims this would not reduce the effectiveness of tsunami warnings, despite the fact that the NOAA budget submission explicitly states, “warnings may extend to a larger area than necessary and for a longer time” (here). Can you imagine the uproar if the same statement was made about hurricanes? Actually, the improvement in hurricane forecasts has been slower than possible - a likely result of the emphasis on satellite funding relative to numerical weather prediction, which I’ll discuss further in my follow-up blog post.

One other notable victim of NWS budget cutters is cancellation of the Air Quality Forecast System (AQFS) at the National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP). Zeroing out this funding will likely undermine further development of the meteorological modeling component of air quality prediction, especially in developing and an ensemble system for addressing the uncertainties in the forecasts.

Stay tuned for Part II. This post will examine the extent to which massive expenditures in weather satellites have potentially stunted progress in different areas of U.S. weather prediction. As an example, NWS’s global weather model - the GFS (Global Forecast System) - ranks 3rd or 4th in quality among the international numerical weather prediction center models, a sorry state of affairs.


Important note: The explicit and publically announced budget reductions ultimately stem from tradeoffs in NOAA’s priorities by restraints imposed by the Obama Administration on all government agencies in recognition of the realities the nation’s fiscal difficulties. Given the state of U.S. politics it’s not surprising that the Administration’s FY 2013 budget proposal was deemed dead on arrival even before reaching the halls of Congress.

What ultimately emerges from Capitol Hill as the 2013 Federal Budget, which of course includes the approved version of the NOAA budget, is unknown. Actually, it’s probably more likely that only a “Continuing Resolution” will pass congress (hopefully without necessitating government shutdown) and provide – at least temporarily – a reprieve from the budget cuts being discussed.

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