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House passes “Weather Forecasting Improvement Act of 2014”

From devastating tornado outbreaks to punishing, costly winters, extreme weather events have hammered the U.S. in recent years.  Although weather forecasts and preparedness have steadily improved, more people and infrastructure are in harms way.  Every year, weather claims scores of lives and leaves behind tens of billions of dollars in economic damages.

Aiming to advance weather research and technology and arm U.S. forecasters with better tools, lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives passed  the “Weather Forecasting Improvement Act of 2014” Tuesday. The Congressional Budget Office estimates it would infuse $360 million into NOAA between 2015-2017 , if it passes through the Senate and is signed into law by the President.

A key driver for the legislation is to enhance U.S. forecast modeling which lags the Europeans in computer power and accuracy. For example, the European computer model provided more lead time for Superstorm Sandy compared to its U.S. counterpart, the GFS.

“The core principle that informs this bill is a firm commitment to restore America’s leadership in numerical weather prediction, forecasting and risk communication,” says a report complementing the Bill, from the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.

The bill was introduced by Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., motivated by recent experiences with violent tornadoes in his state.

“These improved forecasts have the potential to give the public over an hour of lead time to respond to a tornado, compared to the 13 to 15 minute average currently possible,” Bridenstine said. “It is simply unacceptable to continue providing tornado warnings of 15 minutes or less, as was the case in Moore, Oklahoma last year, when warnings an hour or more in advance are achievable.”

Original drafts of the Bill were highly controversial since they proposed shifting NOAA’s research funding from climate  change to weather forecasting.  Democrats strongly opposed this re-prioritization. The bi-partisan version which passed, that includes 20 co-sponsors,  infuses resources into weather research without decreasing climate funding.

“During the committee process we heard from witness after witness who stressed that weather forecasting involves many different scientific disciplines, and this integrated, multi-disciplinary approach reflects an understanding that we cannot choose to strengthen one area of research at the Office of Oceans and Atmospheric Research (OAR) without endangering the progress in the other areas because they are all interconnected,” said Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR). “Physical and chemical laws do not respect OAR’s budgeting boundaries of climate, weather, and oceans and this bill only addresses organizational issues in weather at NOAA.”

Cliff Mass, a professor of meteorology at University of Washington, who has sharply criticized NOAA for not investing in weather research, praised the Bill.

“It is extremely gratifying that Congress wants to improve weather forecasting,” Mass said. “It’s about time.  It’s been dramatically underfunded.”

Mass said the Bill provides very strict guidance to NOAA on how the hundreds of millions of dollars should be spent – which he called “worrisome” but “probably necessary.”

“My feeling is split,” Mass said. “On the one hand, it’s strange Congress has to be this prescriptive. On the other hand I can understand that, given the failures of management in NOAA from the lack of investment in computers to the lack of evaluation of satellite and other observing systems.”

Bloomberg government analysis [paywall link] outlines three areas of emphasis in the legislation – (1) severe weather research and development to improve forecasts and warnings within NOAA, (2) financial support for NOAA partners in the public and private sector, and (3) improving NOAA’s prioritization of research and related collaborations:

The bill would direct [NOAA’s] OAR [Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research] to develop a program designed to create more accurate and timely warnings and forecasts for severe weather. Specific program elements would include advanced radar, aerial systems, high-performance computing and quantitative assessment tools.
The program also would provide grants, contracts and cooperative agreements to federal weather research agencies, the private weather industry and academic institutions to support weather research. At least 30 percent of the funds authorized for research and development at OAR would be used for these purposes.
OAR would be directed to issue a research and development plan that prioritizes research activities and describes the program’s collaborative efforts, among other requirements. The plan would be developed together with NWS [National Weather Service] and the National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service (NESDIS).

“The Bill is far from perfect, but it’s important to remember this is the first piece of major weather legislation to pass since 1992 [in Congress],” said Scott Rayder, senior advisor to the President at the University Center for Atmospheric Research.  “I think this a good step and the right direction.”