This post is one of a series of essays from leading researchers in the weather community on the importance of proposed congressional legislation on improving weather forecasts and their communication.
Despite living in a world of intense political differences, nearly everyone can agree that timely, reliable and accurate weather information has great value.
Proposed legislation in Congress would support important advances in weather prediction that would have enormous societal benefit.
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) has sponsored a “Seasonal Forecasting Improvement Act” (S.1331), a bill that would complement the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2015 (H.R.1551) already passed by the House and sent to the Senate for consideration.
S.1331 addresses multiple facets of the weather enterprise, but we think it’s best to focus on three sections that hold particular promise to advance its capabilities. These capabilities allow individuals and businesses to make smarter decisions based on short- and medium-term weather outlooks and improve our ability to protect life and property. Those three sections are: improving seasonal forecasting capabilities, maintaining the National Water Center and continuing the Hurricane Forecast Improvement Program.
Improving seasonal forecasts
The weather enterprise is at a cusp in its ability to provide meaningful and skillful information about seasonal trends and the likelihood of extremes. As this information becomes more accurate and is communicated to businesses, government officials and the general public in ways that are easy to understand and fold into decision-making processes, we will start to see productivity gains and efficiencies and risk reduction similar to what we now see based on short-term forecasts.
Seasonal forecasting does not mean that anyone can credibly tell you on Labor Day what the exact high temperature will be on Thanksgiving, but it will provide meaningful information about averages and variations from those averages. This information is invaluable for agriculture, transportation, tourism and the retail and construction industries; in fact, most sectors of the economy will benefit.
The Senate bill strongly emphasizes the communication of this seasonal information down to the state and regional level. The bill also encourages NOAA to work with the Department of Defense and its seasonal forecasting program known as Earth System Prediction Capability. Having a coherent and unified federal strategy to advance this next frontier in weather prediction would be a significant achievement.
Maintaining the National Water Center
As the recent floods in Louisiana again tragically demonstrated, water kills, and it doesn’t always arrive with a major hurricane and all its attendant warnings.
While our forecasting skill has improved in general, flooding continues to be very challenging to both accurately predict and communicate with sufficient lead time, particularly those rare rain and flood events that come only every 100 or 1,000 years — imagine being the forecaster whose duty is to predict an event that has not been seen since the time of Columbus.
The National Water Center will integrate the best capabilities of the National Weather Service, the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Flooding depends not only on how much rain falls over a given area and time, but also on the soil moisture and structure, existing stream and river flow, and natural and man-made enhancements — and impediments — to drainage. Placing these capabilities under one roof with a focused mission should improve NOAA’s ability to save lives and minimize property damage from extreme flooding situations.
Improving hurricane forecasts
Finally, S.1331 calls for a continuation of NOAA’s very successful Hurricane Forecast Improvement Program (HFIP). Hurricane track forecasting has been one of the major, but unsung, accomplishments of the weather enterprise in the first part of the 21st century. For example, the average three-day errors in Atlantic tropical storm and hurricane track forecasts have fallen more than 50 percent in the past 20 years. HFIP has had strong NOAA and U.S. Navy support and a focused goal, and combined with adequate resources and strong management, HFIP has benefited the entire nation.
However, there is still work to do. Although some progress has been made, our ability to accurately forecast a hurricane’s intensity lags relative to our track forecasting skill.
We still have gaps in our ability to rapidly and accurately predict and communicate storm surge — especially for “nontraditional” storms whose wind profiles differ from that of a classic hurricane. And as we saw from both Sandy and Hermine, “hybrid” storms pose a particular communication challenge. S.1331 would direct NOAA to continue HFIP to work on these important issues.
There is much to build on in S.1331. The three areas we highlighted — improving seasonal forecasting, supporting the National Water Center and continuing HFIP — would enable our weather enterprise to be even more effective at saving lives and property and allowing businesses to optimize their strategies, rather than simply react to weather.
Despite challenges on the Hill, we hope that the House and Senate, and Congress members from both parties, can come together and pass this bill. It is good for the weather enterprise, but the real winners will be all our citizens.
David W. Titley is a retired rear admiral for the Navy. He currently serves as a professor of practice in the Department of Meteorology and Atmospheric Science at Penn State, and is the founding director of its Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk.
Jon M. Nese is associate head of the undergraduate program in the Penn State Department of Meteorology and Atmospheric Science and a host and writer of the department’s weekday weather magazine show, “Weather World.”
Other essays in this series