Emerging NOAA spending bills focused on extreme weather

By: Stephanie Paige Ogburn, E&E reporter
Publisher: ClimateWire
Published: July 19, 2013

There’s a big difference — $700 million — between how much money the Senate Appropriations Committee wants to allocate for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and how much the House Appropriations Committee is willing to spend.

But there’s one big bipartisan element that both House and Senate appropriators agree on, and that’s the need for NOAA to spend a big chunk of its budget on improving weather forecasting.

The Senate version of the bill, which passed through full committee yesterday, allocates nearly $5.6 billion to NOAA. More than half of that is focused on weather.

A total of $1.95 billion is allocated for weather satellites, which collect data used in modeling severe weather and are useful for climate science. An additional $1.1 billion is for the National Weather Service.

On the House side, the numbers are strikingly similar: The Weather Service is slated to receive $940.7 million, and $1.8 billion is allotted for NOAA’s two big satellite programs.

The data those satellites collect are used in modeling extreme weather as well as for climate science.

These numbers are above what was requested in the Obama administration’s budget for the National Weather Service, signifying Congress’ prioritization of that mission.

Reacting to weather disasters

“We have focused limited resources on the most critical areas,” Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) said Wednesday at the full committee hearing on the House version of the bill.

“Hurricane Sandy and the tornadoes in Oklahoma reminded us again of the loss of life and economic disruption that can develop from severe weather.”

There are stark differences between funding levels in many other parts of the Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies appropriations bill, making the agreement on weather spending stand out.

“Weather has really come up on the national agenda,” said Cliff Mass, a University of Washington meteorologist who closely follows the actions and priorities of the National Weather Service and NOAA. “I think the media and the public understand that we are not doing state-of-the-art work anymore, that we have fallen behind.”

Mass was referring to the widely reported difference in the European model of Sandy, which predicted the storm’s “left hook” into New Jersey days before the American weather model.

“It was on the NBC nightly news! Al Roker was talking about how the European model was superior to the United States’,” Mass added.

This disparity has caught Congress’ attention and opened its purse strings. Two weeks ago, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who heads the Senate Appropriations Committee and the Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, spoke of the United States being in the “Olympics of the weather” and wanting to win (E&ENews PM, July 2).

Some observers say the rising awareness of the need for improved severe weather forecasting started as far back as Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005. But it was pounded home recently with last year’s severe Midwest drought and Superstorm Sandy, just two of the $11 billion weather disasters that occurred in 2012.

Some lessons from the Europeans

Although the cash investment may be welcome, said Antonio Busalacchi, director of the Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center at the University of Maryland and a longtime NOAA observer, there are deeper, more structural issues that NOAA and the National Weather Service need to address.

One of these is the fact that there is no national strategy for Earth-observing satellites and that their cost is spiraling out of control. Another is that NOAA lacks the structure to turn cutting-edge research into useful operational tools.

Busalacchi contrasted NOAA’s research-to-operations capacity to Europe’s Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, whose model was better at predicting Sandy’s path.

“At the European Center they have a culture of research and operations being embedded in the same building. They also have ways of attracting the best and the brightest European scientists from across the country to be in residence at ECMWF,” he said.

Busalacchi acknowledged the investments in weather prediction and improved supercomputing power are a boon, including the $50 million from the Sandy supplemental funding bill that went to improve the Weather Service’s supercomputers and ground capabilities (ClimateWire, July 3).

“But we also have to match the hardware with the brainware component,” he added.

Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission. http://www.eenews.net/climatewire/stories/1059984676/search?keyword=Busalacchi.