In recent weeks, I have spoken to several leading voices in the weather and climate community, and the nation’s weather-prediction capability has repeatedly emerged as a key issue they expect the administration to address. But they have also brought up several other key issues facing NOAA, which they also believe will be priorities:
- The management of NOAA’s satellite programs and opportunities for the private sector to produce and sell satellite data back to the government
- Making the National Weather Service more efficient
- Organizational restructuring, possibly involving other agencies such as NASA and the Interior Department
Improving weather modeling
It is well documented that the main global weather model run out of NOAA, known as the Global Forecast System (GFS), is not of the same caliber as models run by the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasting (ECMWF) and U.K. Met Office.
Cliff Mass, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington, who for years has clamored for improved U.S. weather modeling, wrote a blog post speculating that the Trump administration might finally commit the necessary resources to elevate the United States back into a leadership position.
“An unconventional Trump administration could choose to do something important and helpful: restore U.S. numerical weather prediction (NWP) to its rightful place as the best in the world,” Mass wrote. “And in doing so, immeasurably foster the public safety and economic vitality of the U.S.”
At least one of the several possible candidates for NOAA administrator, Jonathan White, the former oceanographer of the Navy, agrees with Mass’s sentiment. “We need to have the best weather-climate prediction capability in the world,” White said.
Satellite program management and commercial data
It costs an enormous amount of money to manage and operate NOAA’s weather satellite programs — to the tune of over $2 billion per year.
Meanwhile, private companies are developing much smaller, very efficient and inexpensive satellites that can be launched and obtain some of the same data at a fraction of the cost, said Tom Fahy, from Capitol Meteorologics, a D.C. firm that advocates for the weather industry.
NOAA recently awarded contracts to two companies to provide it with weather data from satellites and, in a Trump administration, we might expect to see additional investments in commercial satellites and perhaps a move toward scaling back the development of government-owned satellites.
Making the National Weather Service more efficient
As computer models improve, the need for Weather Service forecasters to predict whether tomorrow will be 66 degrees versus 68 degrees diminishes. Instead, Weather Service meteorologists are needed to help emergency managers and other constituents plan for hazardous weather and make the right decisions.
“We are proposing to continue the transformational shift from merely producing forecasts and warnings to linking those forecasts and warnings to decision-makers who are on the front lines saving lives and property,” the Weather Service said in a November statement.
Expect this emphasis on forecast decision support to continue under a Trump administration.
The Weather Service, thus far, has said this “transformational shift” will not involve eliminating jobs. But the question of whether the current Weather Service staffing structure is the right one will surely be examined.
Especially if the new NOAA administrator comes from the private sector, such as AccuWeather chief executive Barry Myers, roles of the Weather Service that are seen as redundant or in competition with private businesses might be phased out.
Even White, who has a military background, sees a need to clarify the respective roles of the commercial and public sectors in weather forecasting. “We need to shrink the gray area between the federal government and private enterprise,” he said.
Privatization could become a priority issue if the budget for the Department of Commerce, which oversees NOAA, is slashed. The Hill reported Thursday that the Commerce Department could see “major reductions in funding” under the new administration.
For years, politicians have asked why NOAA is in the Department of Commerce, rather than a natural resources-focused agency such as the Interior Department. President Obama told reporters in 2012 that the Interior Department seemed like a more “sensible” home for NOAA.
Obama’s proposal to move NOAA never gained momentum, but it’s plausible that the Trump administration will look at whether it makes sense for NOAA to live elsewhere.
It may also explore whether to merge NASA’s Earth science program with NOAA, since both involve monitoring and studying our planet and its climate. Bob Walker, a former congressman and space policy adviser to Trump, suggested this. “The science that is being done [at NASA] is essentially Earth-based science,” Walker told the Verge. “It relates to weather; it relates to Earth-based needs. And so NOAA is probably a more appropriate place for that to be done.”
However, Brad Plumer at Vox lists obstacles that might make a NOAA-NASA Earth science merger difficult or unlikely, including different budget structures and staff expertise.
A major NOAA reorganization or move to another agency would require substantial energy to work through Congress, potentially facing resistance from committees that have jurisdiction over the involved agencies and programs. To be successful, the benefits would have to be enormous in terms of streamlining resources and reduced costs.
The issues discussed above are but a small sample of the many pressing issues that NOAA will face in the coming years. The health of the oceans and fisheries is a critical challenge but beyond the scope of this blog, which focuses on weather and climate issues.
Some scientists have expressed concerns over whether NOAA will be free to report climate-change science and data findings, given Trump’s stated position on the issue as well as that of some of his appointees. However, at his confirmation hearing Wednesday, Wilbur Ross, Trump’s pick for commerce secretary, tried to allay such concerns — at least for now. He said: “I support the dissemination of valid information to the public. I don’t think valid information should be concealed, and in general, I have great respect for the scientific quality of NOAA. It’s my understanding that there are four Nobel Prize winners at NOAA, and that is certainly a measure of their expertise.”