Hurricane Arthur started the 2014 Atlantic hurricane season in early July. Arthur peaked as a category 2 hurricane with sustained winds of 100 mph before making landfall in North Carolina. (NASA)

NOAA has slashed by more than two-thirds the budget for a National Weather Service program that has led to groundbreaking improvements in hurricane forecasts and that is on the brink of more.  James Franklin, a manager at the National Hurricane Center, made this revelation in a presentation at the National Hurricane Conference in Austin, Texas last week.

Initiated in 2008, the Hurricane Forecast Improvement Program (HFIP) had funding of $14 million in FY2014 which was reduced to $4.5 million in the current fiscal year.

Since it launch, HFIP has focused on achieving gains in hurricane intensity forecasts which had made little progress in the previous three decades, despite the significant strides in the accuracy of track forecasts.

For years, Max Mayfield, a former director of the National Hurricane Center from 2000-2007, warned of the dangers of inadequate hurricane intensity forecasts. In 2004, when Hurricane Charley rapidly strengthened with little notice before striking Florida, he described it as a “nightmare scenario” and pushed for improved intensity forecasts.

HFIP seemed to be moving hurricane intensity forecasting in the right direction. “You hate to see the momentum lost,” Mayfield said.

“It would be a shame to radically reduce this effort when gains seem to be in reach,” added Bill Read, director of the National Hurricane Center from 2008-2012. “While some improvements in the science of intensity forecasting may be attributed to HFIP over the past several years, more work is needed.”

HFIP has served the important role of funding research supporting the improvement of hurricane forecasts and taking the results of that research and incorporating them into actual forecasts. It set an initial goal of improving both track and intensity forecasts by 20 percent in its first five years, and was near meeting those goals.

“The evidence is pretty solid that we’ve reached the 5-year 20 percent improvement goal for track forecast accuracy,” Franklin said in an email. “It’s clear we’ve made some good progress with the intensity forecasts, but it will probably take an active Atlantic season before we can know for sure whether we’ve hit that particular goal.”

One of HFIP’s greatest accomplishments has been its support of the hurricane forecasting model known as HWRF, which was the first model to accurately predict Hurricane Arthur would strike the Outer Banks this past July. In the last year alone, the model demonstrated a remarkable 10-15 percent improvement in accuracy.

“[A] crowning achievement of HFIP has been improvements with the HWRF model, which is now run for all oceans and is considered the international model of choice,” said Chris Vaccaro, spokesperson for the National Weather Service. “New for 2015, HWRF has improved again as it’s poised to run at a much higher resolution for the upcoming hurricane season.”

Over the next 5 years, HFIP’s goals are particularly ambitious, setting out to achieve an additional 30 percent improvement in hurricane track and intensity forecasts. But, with the reduced funding, such goals will be challenging to meet and NOAA, in turn, has reduced its goals.

NOAA’s budget document describes serious consequences for scaling the program back. “Reduction to HFIP introduces risk to NOAA’s efforts to improve regional and global weather models,” NOAA said. “Populations in vulnerable coastal regions of the United States will not benefit from improved guidance leading to continued over warning resulting in unnecessary, costly evacuations.”

Research grants funded by the program will take a serious hit due to the funding cut. “Strategic partnerships with interagency and academic partners will be significantly scaled back or terminated risking the reputation of NOAA to be a contributing member of this research community,” NOAA said.

NOAA’s official line is that the “current fiscal environment” cannot sustain HFIP at the current level. “The risks of not focusing on immediate, key needs outweigh the slowed progress of HFIP that has achieved many of its goals,” it said.

A drought in landfalling hurricanes in Florida and major hurricanes striking the East Coast has not helped the urgency of funding hurricane forecasting activities.

“It’s unfortunate that we must wait for a disaster such as Hurricane Sandy to highlight the need for advanced weather models or better supercomputers,” said Ryan Maue, a meteorologist for WeatherBell.com. “However, NOAA and university partners have not been able to count on consistent multi-year investments in the necessary research to achieve that next level of improved forecast skill.”

[Why Florida’s record-setting hurricane drought portends danger | Unprecedented drought in major hurricanes]

Mayfield said the way forward is to prioritize HFIP’s budget on areas that have shown the most success. “Hopefully they can target in areas that have the most promise,” he said.

Related:

The National Hurricane Center’s strikingly accurate forecast for Sandy

Airborne phased array radar could spur a “quantum leap” in hurricane forecasts