Visualization of El Nino (null.earthschool.net)

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.

Fall is upon us, with wintertime to follow. The weather will turn cooler, and the leaves will explode with brilliant colors, then wither and die. The change of seasons is marvelous.

But no season one year is the same as the next. The long-term research of atmospheric scientists has led to forecasts that help us to properly dress daily, and moreover help the vast sectors of our national economy from industrial base scales to small family-owned businesses.

The list of societal benefits from weather and extended weather research is pervasive.

The seminal research on extended weather conditions has already helped power companies and the airline industry know what is over the horizon. It has aided downhill ski-lift operators, city planners and highway officials in anticipating how much snow will likely fall this upcoming winter, and thus how much artificial snow to plan for or how much road chemicals and salt will be needed, etc.

Knowing how much our society depends on reliable weather information from the National Weather Service and their partners in the private sector, atmospheric scientists have learned that there could be great economic advantages to extending the range of reliable forecasts. This is an opportunity for the Weather Service to provide longer forecast outlooks and for the private sectors to provide more specialized forecast information to business.

How can forecasters make real strides in improving forecasts beyond several days into the future? South Dakota’s Sen. John Thune has an answer that will help. Thune has introduced Senate Bill 1331, the Seasonal Forecasting Improvement Act, which is a positive first step.

Section 3 of the bill laudably calls for the reauthorization of the U.S. Weather Research Program through 2020. NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory website explains the benefits of this program:

Through the U.S. Weather Research Program, NOAA seeks to improve weather and air chemistry forecast and warning information and products by funding, facilitating, and coordinating cutting-edge research to improve high-impact weather and air chemistry predictions and warnings to protect lives and property of the American public and inform weather-sensitive U.S. industries. The U.S. Weather Research Program project activities include weather test-beds, environmental modeling research, weather research partnership projects, and socioeconomic research.

S. 1331 improves this program by making it a joint collaboration between NOAA’s Offices of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research and the Weather Service. In its heyday, the program set the national road map for the future of forecasting broadly defined for the United States.

Through concerted efforts from the weather enterprise, which is comprised of NOAA, academic research institutions and the private sector, hurricane track and intensity forecasts have been improved. However, the research challenges associated with improving quantitative precipitation forecasting, subsequent flooding and the communication of risk still remain, as many locations across the nation have faced the ravages of more frequently occurring and greater-intensity extreme rainfall events.

Recently, American farmers and ranchers have also endured a crippling drought. If meteorologists could provide reliable long-term seasonal forecasts that would predict when, where and how much it would rain, the forecasts would have significant effect on those businesses and families working in agribusinesses, and on virtually every sector of the economy.

Last year, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences’ Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate established the “Committee on Developing a U.S. Research Agenda to Advance Subseasonal to Seasonal Forecasting.” This parallel action by the weather research community shows that Thune’s efforts on S. 1331 are timely and have contributed to creating congressional awareness of this important issue.

As the Weather Service, in cooperation with businesses, communities, universities and private-sector partners work collaboratively to build a “Weather Ready Nation,” Congress has an opportunity next year to fund additional investments for the U.S. Weather Research Program to provide more research focused on weather, water, climate and especially on longer-term seasonal forecasts.

Right now, Senate Bill 1331, the Seasonal Forecasting Improvement Act, is poised to help get this effort started and needs to be passed. The benefits are not just for weather sensitive U.S. industries and businesses. Everyone gains.

Leonard Pietrasfesa is professor emeritus in atmospheric sciences at North Carolina State University. He is also former chair of the NOAA Science Advisory Board.

Other essays in this series

Satellites are the backbone of weather forecasts. Congress must vote to support them.

How Congress could help weather forecasters reach more people and save lives

Senate weather bill that supports forecast improvement can benefit all Americans