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Senate passes major bill to improve weather forecasting

Tropical Storm Hermine. (NASA-National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Sweeping bipartisan legislation to support weather research and predictions has passed the Senate.

If approved by the House of Representatives and signed by the president, it will become the first major piece of weather legislation adopted since the early 1990s.

The bill, Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2016, H.R. 1561, was approved unanimously in the Senate late Thursday.

The bill’s stated purpose is “to improve the National Oceanic And Atmospheric Administration’s weather research” through investments in observations, computing and modeling, as well as to expand commercial opportunities for providing weather data.

It is specifically aimed to support advances in:

  • Forecasting dangerous storms, including tornadoes and hurricanes.
  • Long-range forecasts for time periods between two weeks and two years
  • Forecast communication
  • Tsunami warnings

“From long-term forecasting that can prevent costly agricultural losses to more actionable information about severe weather, this legislation will help save lives and reduce avoidable property loss,” said Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.), who championed the bill.

The legislation also reforms NOAA’s weather satellite programs, requiring the agency to consider ways to reduce costs and stay on schedule after years of cost overruns and delays. It further calls on NOAA to enter into a pilot program contract to evaluate the private sector’s capabilities in providing space-based weather data.

NOAA awards first-ever satellite data contracts to private industry

The legislation combines provisions of four separate weather-related bills sponsored by Thune, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Tex.). It also includes an amendment from Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) supporting tsunami forecasting.

“The bill strengthens the science to forecast severe heat and cold, storms, tornadoes, tsunamis, droughts, floods and hurricanes so that our warnings are more timely and accurate,” Schatz said. “The bill also improves how the government communicates these threats to the public so that families and businesses can stay safe and be prepared so that they can recover quicker. We cannot stop a tsunami or a hurricane, but better forecasts and better warnings will save lives and livelihoods.”

Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), a cosponsor of the legislation on the House side, is “pleased” with the Senate passage, according to his staff. “The Science, Space and Technology Committee [on which Bridenstine sits] is working with House leadership to get a vote scheduled next week and send it to the President for his signature,” said Christopher Ingraham, senior policy adviser in Bridenstine’s office.

More information

Senate approves bicameral weather forecasting reforms

Senate passes Rubio’s legislation to improve hurricane forecasting

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

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

Senate weather bill that supports forecast improvement can benefit all Americans

If Congress invests in seasonal weather forecast research, everyone wins