Budget cuts set to take effect on March 1 could seriously compromise the ability of the National Weather Service to provide timely, reliable weather forecasts government officials and industry leaders warn. Programs and staffing to support weather forecasting are set to be slashed.
An 8.2 percent across-the-board cut in spending, from the so-called sequester, will trim already financially-depleted programs critical for maintaining and improving the NWS’ weather capabilities.
“It’s not going to be pretty,” said outgoing National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief Jane Lubchenco at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (according to Climate Central). “The sequester has the potential to wreak havoc with so many different things...”
The cuts loom large following a two-year onslaught of extreme weather, including Superstorm Sandy and continuing historic drought conditions in the Heartland. In 2011 and 2012, the U.S. experienced the most and second most number of billion dollar weather disasters on record.
“Sequestration substantially increases the risk that the United States will not be a weather-ready nation,” said Kevin Kelly, a lobbyist at Van Scoyoc Associates, who advocates for the weather enterprise. “Communities that experience a heightened risk of severe weather – which affects large portions of the nation in the spring and summer – face the chance of greater danger because the Weather Service will not be operating at 100 percent.”
The cash-strapped National Weather Service is facing increasing scrutiny over its inferior computer modeling power compared to international peers and is anticipating a likely gap in weather satellite coverage. Last week, the Government Accountability Office ranked the pending satellite gap among the top 30 threats facing the Federal government.
The Department of Commerce warned that not only will the loss of satellite data and imagery diminish the quality of forecasts, but so will other important weather data surrendered by spending cuts.
“Sequestration will also reduce the number of flight hours for NOAA aircraft, which serve important missions such as hurricane reconnaissance and coastal surveying,” said a DOC spokesperson. “NOAA will also need to curtail maintenance and operations of weather systems such as NEXRAD (the national radar network) and the Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System (used by local weather forecast offices to process and monitor weather data), which could lead to longer service outages or reduced data availability for forecasters.”
In addition to program spending cuts, NOAA faces the possibility of staff furloughs and unfilled positions. While not specifying the number of NWS cuts, the DOC states up to 2,600 NOAA employees will have to be furloughed, 2,700 positions left vacant, and 1,400 contractor positions reduced if the sequester materializes.
“NOAA will face the loss of highly trained technical staff and partners,” a DOC spokesperson said. “As a result, the government runs the risk of significantly increasing forecast error and, the government’s ability to warn Americans across the country about high impact weather events, such as hurricanes and tornadoes, will be compromised”
A report from the Aerospace Industries Association predicted 1,000 job losses in NOAA’s weather satellite programs.
Bill Hooke, director of the American Meteorological Society’s policy program, said the losses in NWS capabilities resulting from the sequester will not be apparent immediately, but will slowly reveal themselves over time.
“When the sequester hits, government services such as weather forecasts and air-traffic control will continue,” Hooke blogged. “They won’t come to an abrupt halt. The most serious and deleterious effects of sequestration will appear gradually, over any ensuing weeks and months.”
NOAA’s Lubcencho suggested the lack of fiscal clarity is crippling for government program managers.
“There’s just so much uncertainty,” Lubchenco said (according to Climate Central). “Nobody knows how long it might last, and it’s very difficult to plan for that.”
Van Scoyoc’s Kelly minced few words in his criticism of the current fiscal situation.
“This is a classic penny wise, pound foolish approach to deficit reduction that places lives and property in all parts of the country at greater risk,” Kelly said. “It is a “not ready for prime time” approach to our national weather enterprise.”
Related reading: Budget Cuts May Degrade Weather, Climate Forecasting (Climate Central)