House Passes Bill Redirecting $330 Million to Weather Forecasting

In the near future, the U.S. House of Representatives plans to consider a bill that aims to force NOAA to "prioritize" a large number of its financial resources on the improvement and execution of near-term weather prediction.

The bill, called the "Weather Forecasting Improvement Act," says its goal is to redirect hundreds of millions of dollars "to deliver substantial improvement in weather forecasting and prediction of high impact weather events, such as tornadoes and hurricanes, and for other purposes."

Of the bill's 20 cosponsors, 13 are Republicans and 7 are Democrats. The ideological spread among the cosponsors is impressive for the perennially-deadlocked legislative body — both Alan Grayson (D-FL) and Paul Broun (R-GA), who are as polar opposite as it gets in American politics, signed onto the legislation.

Pete Kasperowicz at The Hill posited a more sinister motive behind the introduction of the bill, though. He says its true goal could be to force NOAA to focus on weather forecasting so it can't spend its resources studying climate change.

Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) introduced his bill last year after tornadoes hit his home state. Those storms led him to argue on the House floor the government spends too much on climate change research and not enough on developing weather forecasting tools to predict tornadoes and other events.

His bill does not explicitly kick the government out of the business of studying climate change. But it does say NOAA must "prioritize weather-related activities, including the provision of improved weather data, forecasts, and warnings for the protection of life and property and the enhancement of the national economy, in all relevant line offices."

If Kasperowicz's suspicions are correct that this legislation is aimed at stymying ongoing and future climate change research, it would be a wonderful bit of irony on the part of House Republicans to tell NOAA to "stick to the weather."

Members of the GOP have a well-documented grudge against the Federal government's involvement in weather forecasting, including former Senator Rick Santorum's failed 2005 crusade to abolish the National Weather Service as we know it in favor of private weather forecasting venues like AccuWeather or The Weather Channel — neither of which would be able to operate, mind you, without the heavy use of resources made available by the Federal government.

However, if the intent of the bill is pure (which I really hope it is), the legislation would be like a dream for meteorologists and weather enthusiasts the world over. Among the highlights of the bill (as of its March 21 version) include:

  • Prioritize "weather-related activities" of NOAA
  • Improve the "fundamental understanding of weather."
  • Study how the public receives and reacts to severe weather warnings
  • Massive efforts to increase research and development of weather technologies
  • Institute a program to develop and extend "accurate, effective, and timely tornado forecasts, predictions, and warnings, including the prediction of tornadoes beyond one hour in advance*"
  • Institute a program to do the same thing with hurricane warnings/forecasts
  • Institute an R&D plan to make the United States #1 in weather modelling
  • "Aggressively pursue the newest, fastest, and most cost effective high performance computing technologies in support of [NOAA's] weather prediction mission"
  • Enable NOAA to pursue commercial contracts to obtain "surface-based and space-based weather observations" from private companies

The legislation ultimately appropriates $329,500,000 in the 2014 budget for the purposes of carrying out the missions mandated therein.

The flow of hundreds of millions of dollars to weather forecasting research and development is desperately needed. Over the last couple of years, NOAA and its National Weather Service have taken dramatic cuts that threaten the agencies' effectiveness.

The sequestration that took effect in 2012 fired over 100 IT meteorologists, who are crucial for keeping the day-to-day operations of Weather Service offices running glitch-free. If a NWS office faces a technical issue, it now must work out the problem with IT meteorologists at a central location which could cause life-threatening delays in severe weather situations.

One of the biggest problems with weather forecasting in the United States is the growing inferiority of its weather models compared to the rest of the world, which is a problem that would (hopefully) be rectified by the goals laid out in the legislation.

Even up through the end of last month, the budget proposed by President Obama imposes or retains major cuts to the National Weather Service that would hamper its ability to expand and improve operations.

Since the current session of Congress is shaping up to be one of the most unproductive on record, there is a good chance that the Weather Forecasting Improvement Act will die in committee and never see the Resolute Desk. But if its intentions are really to improve weather forecasting and not halt climate change research, it is a desperately needed breath of life into the field of meteorology.

Update 215PM EDT: Andrew Freedman informed me via Twitter that the bill passed the House yesterday on a voice vote, which didn't appear on Congress.gov until sometime after 3:30 this morning. The original text of the post above is unchanged.

[Image via AP]