Visualizations of Superstorm Sandy in 2012 (Images courtesy Mel Shapiro, NCAR)
Visualizations of Hurricane Sandy in 2012 (Mel Shapiro, NCAR)

The Trump administration has proposed a 17 percent cut to the budget of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, according to a four-page budget document obtained by The Washington Post and reported on Friday. Several leaders in the weather and climate community have expressed exasperation, saying such cuts would profoundly set back advances in weather prediction and climate science. Some said they could even cost lives.

NOAA, which is part of the Department of Commerce, houses the National Weather Service and the divisions responsible for weather satellites and atmospheric research.

Cuts could put critical weather satellites at ‘very high risk’

The weather satellite division, known as the National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service, would be hardest hit by the proposed cuts. The administration proposes slashing its budget by $513 million in the 2018 fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1.

Data from weather satellites are indispensable for models used to predict the weather. NOAA has conducted experiments that show that forecasts for costly and deadly storms would be far less accurate without such information.

The administration’s proposed budget would only partially fund the “Polar Follow On” satellites, two polar-orbiting satellites planned for launch in 2024 and 2026. The budget proposal asks NOAA to instead “work with its partners and OMB [Office of Management and Budget] to develop options for re-phasing the program with later launch-readiness dates, with the goal of lowering annual costs.”

Delaying the launch of those satellites is the “exact opposite” of what is needed and could lead to gaps in coverage, said Jonathan Malay, a past president of the American Meteorological Society who worked in the satellite industry. “They need to be flown earlier not later to assure continuity in observations,” he said. “NOAA satellites save lives and protect our country. It’s time to stop apologizing that they cost a lot of money.”

As a cost-savings measure, the administration’s proposal said it would like to “revisit conversations” about using commercial or international satellites to supplement or replace NOAA’s satellite systems. That’s a “very high risk” strategy, said David Titley, a professor of meteorology at Pennsylvania State University who served as NOAA’s chief operating officer in the Obama administration. “It is like landing on a new island and burning your ships before you know if your new home can sustain life,” he said.

Cuts would ‘compromise’ critical atmospheric research

The administration’s proposal would slash NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) office by $126 million, including the proposed elimination of the Sea Grant program.

The office funds important research toward improving the nation’s weather models, which have fallen behind the Europeans in their prediction capabilities, said Cliff Mass, an atmospheric science researcher at the University of Washington. “Such a large cut would greatly undermine current activities to replace the problematic current generation of U.S. global [weather] models,” Mass wrote on his blog. “It would undermine the development of new approaches to data assimilation of observational data. And much more.”

In addition to funding weather research, the office houses NOAA’s Climate Program Office which manages the agency’s climate research programs and connects the research findings with stakeholders, such as state and local officials and resource managers. “I see this [funding cut] as the undeclared war on climate research,” Titley told Climate Central.

Broadly speaking, the cuts could set atmospheric research back years, said Marshall Shepherd, a past president of the American Meteorological Society and professor at the University of Georgia. “Research cuts compromise our ability to sustain and develop new capabilities in the future,” he wrote in a column at Forbes. “Even 1-4 year lags or reductions can cause long-term damage because of erosion of technical skills, scientific expertise, and industry contracts.”

The National Weather Service cut is small, but potentially ‘devastating’

Of NOAA’s various divisions, the administration proposes the smallest cuts, at around 5 percent, for the Weather Service, along with the National Marine Fisheries Service. But the Dan Sobien, president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization, a labor union, called the proposed $53 million cut for the Weather Service “devastating.”

“There’s not a whole lot of discretionary spending in the Weather Service budget,” Sobien said. “It would leave a huge hole in our ability to warn people and could even cost lives.”

Sobien noted that the weather touches all aspects of the economy, from the cost of a loaf of bread to insurance premiums. “The weather has such a huge impact on the economy, that the small savings [from the cuts] are a losing proposition for taxpayers,” he said. “This is penny-wise and pound-foolish.”

He added that the effects of cuts in other parts of NOAA would trickle down to the Weather Service. “We are part of NOAA. We all rely on each other, we’re all leveraged,” he said. “If satellite data are compromised, then the models aren’t as good, and that makes the forecaster’s job more difficult.”

The budget figures presented here are not final. They are part of the Office of Management and Budget’s passback document, a key part of the annual budget process in which the White House instructs agencies to draw up detailed budgets for submission to Congress. The numbers often change during the course of negotiations between the agency and the White House and between lawmakers and the administration later on.