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White House budget aims to ‘slow’ gains in weather prediction, shocking forecasters

European model simulation of Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. (Weatherbell Models)

The main U.S. weather forecasting model, which has fallen behind the European model in its accuracy, has been called a “national embarrassment.”

In an inexplicable budget proposal that has floored the weather community, the Trump administration aims to reduce investments in programs that would improve this model and many others aspects of the nation’s weather forecasting.

Released Tuesday, the proposal slashes funding at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the parent agency of the National Weather Service, by 16 percent.

The proposal not only reduces investments in weather forecasting technology but also cuts programs that would enhance understanding of phenomena, such as El Nino, hurricanes and tornadoes. NOAA’s weather satellite programs would see reductions in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Climate scientists and weather forecasters outraged by proposed cuts to NOAA

“This budget would ensure that NOAA-NWS becomes a second- or third-tier weather forecasting enterprise, frozen in the early 2000s,” said David Titley, who served as chief operating officer for NOAA from 2012 to 2013.

The Trump administration dropped their budget for next year on May 23. Here are three of the biggest cuts it proposes. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: JIM BOURG/The Washington Post)

The cuts “would have serious repercussions for the U.S. economy and national security, and for the ability to protect life and property,” said Antonio Busalacchi, president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. “Such funding cuts would be especially unfortunate at a time when the nation is moving to regain its position as the world leader in weather forecasting.”

The budget “blue book” for NOAA, which details the administration’s funding recommendations, specifically directs the agency to “reduce investment in numerical weather prediction modeling.” It calls for a $5 million funding cut “to slow the transition of advanced modeling research into operations for improved warnings and forecasts.”

The proposal comes at a time when the Weather Service’s main model, the Global Forecast System (GFS), has seen a sharp drop-off in its accuracy in predicting weather patterns five to seven days in the future:

The model, due to inferior technology for bringing in data and less sophisticated representation of the atmosphere’s behavior, much more frequently experiences these decreases in performance compared with the European model.

“With GFS in the dumps, any cuts to numerical weather prediction are shortsighted, misplaced and a major blow to U.S. competitiveness,” said Ryan Maue, a meteorologist at WeatherBell Analytics, who closely tracks model performance.

The proposal would only widen the gap between the American and European models, said Cliff Mass, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington who has long championed deeper investments in U.S. weather modeling

“It’s a disaster,” Mass said. “It would guarantee the stagnation of development of the next generation of weather-prediction systems for the U.S.”

Some of the cuts proposed may not even be allowable, as they conflict with provisions of the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2017, passed by Congress, and signed into law by President Trump on April 18.

President Trump signs comprehensive weather forecast improvement bill into law

This new legislation directs NOAA to develop a plan “to restore” U.S. leadership in the same modeling the White House proposal puts on the chopping block.

Several other components of the White House proposal appear to contradict the legislation:

  • It reduces funding for the Hurricane Forecast Improvement Program and tsunami warning system, which the legislation protects.
  • It “terminates” development of experimental forecasts 16 to 30 days into the future, another focus area of the legislation, championed by Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.).
  • It axes a program to improve tornado detection and warnings in the Southeast United States, whereas the legislation mandates the development of a tornado warning and extension program.

“It’s inconsistent with the legislation,” said Sara Gonzalez-Rothi, a spokeswoman for Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla). “It’s also inconsistent with a lot of the conversations that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross had during his confirmation, which recognizes the economy is tied to the weather forecasting capabilities at NOAA.”

Nelson said: “When it comes to protecting life and property, one thing we ought not be doing is slashing funding for weather forecasts. That’s down right irresponsible.”

Sen. Thune attributed the disconnect to timing differences between the legislation roll-out and the White House budget process. “The Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act only became law last month, but the process of writing a budget has been moving forward since well before then,” he said. “As implementation of these recent reforms begins, I anticipate agency views and the budgeting process will become more closely aligned with the new law.”

The White House’s proposed cuts at the Weather Service are just the tip of the iceberg among an exhaustive set of NOAA funding reductions that could damage advancing understanding of weather and climate.

The administration proposes large cuts to NOAA’s climate research and university grants while eliminating its Arctic research and education programs.

“In the broadest terms, the proposal tells NOAA to stop doing anything that might be construed as innovative, useful or cutting edge,” Titley said. “This budget is the opposite of making America great: It will make us more vulnerable and less prepared to face extreme weather in a changing and never-experienced climate.”

While alarming to many in the weather community, several people familiar with the budget process said the cuts are dead on arrival. Congress’s proposed budget for NOAA included only a 1 percent cut.

“[The White House budget] cuts programs everyday folks depend on,” said Bryan Gulley, a spokesman for Nelson. “Obviously, it’s not going anywhere.”

Marshall Shepherd, a past president of the American Meteorological Society, agreed the cuts probably won’t stick given NOAA’s long-standing bi-partisan support, but said they are “still worthy of outrage.”