Hurricane Andrew in 1992. (NASA)

(This story, originally published April 4, was updated after the bill, passed by Congress, was signed by the president.)

On Tuesday evening, President Trump signed into law a sweeping bipartisan bill that aims to improve forecasts for everything from Category 5 hurricanes to El Niño.

Years in the making, it becomes the first major weather legislation enacted since the early 1990s.

“I congratulate President Trump for moving us closer to a day when we have zero deaths from tornadoes and severe weather events,” said Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.).

The 97-page bill, the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2017, H.R. 353, gained bipartisan support in Congress. It passed the Senate March 30 and the House on April 4.

“The Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act is a major step toward more accurate and timely weather predictions,” Rep. Frank D. Lucas (R-Okla.) said.

The bill places a great deal of emphasis on research that will improve forecasts for extreme weather events from the short-range to the long-term.

“Research into the atmosphere provides an enormous return on investment,” said Antonio J. Busalacchi, president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, which supported the bill. “Weather affects all of us, and being able to make plans based on forecasts of likely weather conditions is literally worth many billions of dollars to households and businesses.”

An entire section of the bill, championed by Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), is devoted to improving weather forecasts between two weeks and two years into future, which would prove tremendously valuable for farmers and utilities. “The results of this legislation will be better warning about extreme weather events and changes to long-term forecasting that give farmers better information about what and when to plant and local transportation departments more time to prepare for unusually harsh winters,” Thune said.

Another section of the bill focuses on stimulating the private sector to generate weather data that the government can use to improve forecasts. “With this bipartisan effort, we will improve forecasting by looking to the private sector for new technologies and weather solutions,” Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) said. “This bill gives NOAA a clear vision and allows them the flexibility to buy new, affordable, and potentially better sources of data.”

The bill earned endorsement from broad segments of academic and private sectors of the weather community.

“I am very pleased to see the Congress pass this bill,” said David Titley, professor of meteorology at Pennsylvania State University. “Improving weather-related safety of our people and our assets is not political — it’s just common sense.”

Containing scores of provisions, the bill would require the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to:

  • 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.
  • Conduct a study of gaps in weather radar coverage around the nation.
  • Acquire backup for hurricane hunter aircraft.
  • Modernize the U.S. tsunami warning system, improve tsunami research and strengthen education efforts.

The bill sets priorities and authorizes funding for many of these initiatives, but does not necessarily signal new or increased funding for NOAA.

“NOAA and the Weather Service will require adequate resources to pursue these improvements,” Titley said. “I believe the Congress will continue to show leadership on our nation’s weather capabilities and appropriate the resources needed by the NOAA professionals.”

Programs not protected by this legislation could be jeopardized if NOAA’s overall funding is slashed, as proposed in Trump’s budget.

The bill was introduced by Thune and Lucas in the Senate and House. Bill co-sponsors include Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Reps. Smith, Bridenstine, Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), Chris Stewart (R-Utah) and Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.), and Del. Aumua Amata Coleman Radewagen (R-American Samoa).