After stumbling blocks and delays, sweeping bipartisan legislation to improve weather forecasting has passed the Senate.
The 65-page bill, the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2017, H.R. 353, contains four sections that support research and programs to improve weather forecasting and its communication on short and long time scales.
Containing scores of provisions, the bill would require the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to, for example:
- Establish a program to improve tornado warnings.
- Protect the Hurricane Forecast Improvement Program, whose funding was previously slashed.
- Develop a formal plan for weather research.
- Develop an annual report on the state of its weather models.
- Develop forecasts on the subseasonal (two weeks to three months), seasonal (three months to one year) and interannual (up to two years) time scales.
- Consider options to buy commercially provided weather satellite data rather than launch expensive government satellites.
- Improve its watch-and-warning system based on recommendations from social and behavioral scientists.
The bill authorizes funding for these initiatives, totaling more than $170 million, but does not necessarily signal new or increased funding for NOAA. Rather it offers guidance on what programs should receive specific funding amounts given the existing budget negotiated by the president and Congress.
The bill is a revised version of a similar bill that passed the Senate in early December. But the earlier bill, years in the making, died in the House before the new year.
At issue was an amendment by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) that mandated a contentious study on water resources that had potential implications for a decades-long dispute between Georgia, Alabama and Florida.
Georgia Republicans opposed the study, and lawmakers were unable to reach a compromise on the matter before the 114th Congress concluded.
But the bill was resuscitated by the Senate in the new Congress and the controversial watershed study stripped out.
The revised legislation, after a new round of negotiations, adds two significant provisions. One is a requirement for the National Weather Service to study gaps in radar coverage across the country.
The study was advocated by Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who has long pushed for a dedicated radar site in Charlotte, along with the area’s meteorologists.
“No other city of Charlotte’s size currently has a radar situated more than 58 miles away,” Brad Panovich, chief meteorologist for the NBC affiliate serving Charlotte, wrote in a blog post in September 2015. “This has become a very dangerous situation in my opinion.”
Previously, bipartisan legislation requiring the Weather Service to install radar in cities the size of Charlotte was introduced but never passed.
The second new provision in the bill requires NOAA to acquire backup for hurricane hunter aircraft.
“[W]hile the hurricane season seems to be getting longer, the NOAA plane is getting older,” said Nelson, who championed the provision. “We must have a reliable backup. And I am pleased today that the Senate has unanimously passed this measure as part of a broader weather bill.”
Longtime weather industry lobbyist Tom Fahy from Capitol Meteorologics said the bill brought out the best in bipartisan cooperation. “Improving our weather infrastructure strengthens not only the diverse sectors of our economy but the entire country,” he said.
Senators from both sides of the political aisle cheered the bill’s passage.
“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,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said.
“Our bill strengthens the science to forecast severe heat and cold, storms, tornadoes, tsunamis and hurricanes, helping us make our warnings more timely and accurate,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said. “It also improves how the government communicates these threats to the public, so that families and businesses can be prepared and stay safe.”
The bill also has gained broad support from the weather enterprise’s private and academic sectors, including AccuWeather, GeoOptics, Panasonic Avionics, Schneider Electric, Vaisala, the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research and the University of Oklahoma.
“H.R. 353 will serve as a blue print for the next NOAA administrator,” said Barry Myers, chief executive of AccuWeather.
The bill will be sent to the House for consideration.
Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), a co-sponsor of the legislation on the House side, said he is confident that with the additions and improvements to the bill, it should have no trouble getting to the president’s desk.
Capital Weather Gang’s series on the importance of weather legislation: