Congress Wants to Fix the Government's Weather Forecasting System

Law­makers on both sides of the aisle are ex­press­ing fears that Amer­ica’s abil­ity to pre­dict the weath­er is in peril.

There’s a storm brew­ing in the House Sci­ence Com­mit­tee.

Law­makers on both sides of the aisle are ex­press­ing fears that Amer­ica’s abil­ity to pre­dict the weath­er, in­clud­ing ex­treme and at-times deadly events such as hur­ricanes and tor­nadoes, is in per­il.

The com­mit­tee has over­sight of the Na­tion­al Ocean­ic and At­mo­spher­ic Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s weath­er satel­lites. And in re­cent years, the weath­er-pre­dict­ing pro­gram has been be­set by cost over­runs and delays. Worse still, there may be a loom­ing gap in the agency’s abil­ity to col­lect crit­ic­al fore­cast­ing data, which the U.S. badly needs to pre­dict—and mit­ig­ate—severe weath­er events.

All that has com­mit­tee mem­bers ser­i­ously wor­ried. “The safety and well-be­ing of Amer­ic­an lives is at risk when these im­port­ant re­sources are jeop­ard­ized,” com­mit­tee rank­ing mem­ber Ed­die Ber­nice John­son told Na­tion­al Journ­al.

“The prob­lem with the satel­lites—and the satel­lites are im­port­ant for pre­dict­ing ex­treme weath­er, for gath­er­ing in­form­a­tion about the cli­mate and so forth—is many of the satel­lites are near­ing the end of their life ex­pect­ancy,” Chair­man Lamar Smith said in an in­ter­view.

Adding to the ur­gency, that warn­ing ar­rives at a time when cli­mate sci­ent­ists say that hu­man activ­ity is driv­ing up glob­al tem­per­at­ures, which in turn ups the odds of dan­ger­ous weath­er events. In short: Amer­ica’s abil­ity to pre­dict ex­treme weath­er may be at risk just when we need to rely on it the most.

That com­mon con­cern has knit Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans on the House Sci­ence com­mit­tee to­geth­er even at a mo­ment when some of the pan­el’s oth­er re­spons­ib­il­it­ies such as work­ing to set pri­or­it­ies for NASA have cre­ated deep di­vides. And House Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans think they may have a way to solve what they see as a ma­jor prob­lem.

In March, the com­mit­tee un­an­im­ously passed bi­par­tis­an le­gis­la­tion aimed at im­prov­ing weath­er fore­cast­ing at NOAA. The bill calls on NOAA to make changes such as pri­or­it­iz­ing weath­er re­search at the agency to yield more re­li­able and ac­cur­ate fore­casts. It also looks to the private sec­tor to help ad­vance the agency’s abil­ity to pre­dict the weath­er. Pur­chas­ing weath­er data from com­mer­cial en­tit­ies could help lessen the im­pact of a gap in NOAA’s fore­cast­ing abil­ity as old satel­lites go off­line, com­mit­tee mem­bers say.

But while the House passed the bill in the spring, the Sen­ate has yet to take the le­gis­la­tion up, which has frus­trated Smith and oth­er com­mit­tee mem­bers who feel that the bi­par­tis­an show of sup­port in the House should cre­ate mo­mentum for ac­tion in the Sen­ate.

Chal­lenges fa­cing the weath­er satel­lite pro­gram are very real. “Mit­ig­at­ing gaps in weath­er satel­lite data” made the 2015 “high-risk list” from the Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­ab­il­ity Of­fice, a com­pen­di­um of the most press­ing is­sues and po­ten­tial prob­lems that plague the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment.

GAO con­cluded that “the con­tinu­ity of satel­lite data is at risk” due to the weath­er-fore­cast­ing pro­gram’s “troubled legacies of cost in­creases, missed mile­stones, tech­nic­al prob­lems, and man­age­ment chal­lenges that have res­ul­ted in re­duced func­tion­al­ity and slips to planned launch dates.”

A loss of cov­er­age could have wide­spread im­pacts be­cause NOAA satel­lite data is used in com­mer­cial weath­er fore­cast­ing and emer­gency-dis­aster plan­ning and re­sponse, as well as by air­lines, farm­ers, and even the U.S. mil­it­ary.

For its part, NOAA says that it is work­ing to re­spond to any po­ten­tial prob­lem. “NOAA is work­ing with vari­ous part­ners to re­duce im­pacts of a po­ten­tial gap—in­clud­ing lever­aging oth­er ob­ser­va­tion­al plat­forms, us­ing ad­di­tion­al satel­lite meas­ure­ments and re­quest­ing fund­ing in our FY16 budget to ini­ti­ate the Po­lar Fol­low On pro­gram. The PFO will help NOAA pro­tect against pos­sible gaps in the fu­ture and en­sure NOAA’s abil­ity to provide ac­cur­ate, life-sav­ing weath­er fore­casts and warn­ings,” said John Leslie, an NOAA spokes­man, in an emailed state­ment.

Still, con­cerns per­sist. “In re­cent years, Europe and oth­ers have over­taken the U.S. in weath­er-fore­cast­ing cap­ab­il­it­ies. And the U.S. faces a likely gap in key weath­er data that could fur­ther dam­age our abil­ity to is­sue ac­cur­ate and timely fore­casts,” Smith warned.

John­son said that any gap in satel­lite cov­er­age would be “un­ac­cept­able.”

“The loss or de­grad­a­tion of this crit­ic­al weath­er data would have a very ser­i­ous im­pact on our weath­er-fore­cast­ing cap­ab­il­it­ies—an im­pact that would re­ver­ber­ate across many in­dus­tries and gov­ern­ment op­er­a­tions. … These satel­lites must suc­ceed, and I am fully com­mit­ted to en­sur­ing that they get on track and stay on track,” John­son said.

One bright spot in the midst of all the worry is that tack­ling the prob­lem of gaps in satel­lite weath­er fore­cast­ing has brought Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans to­geth­er, yield­ing a broad and bi­par­tis­an con­sensus.

“We don’t see par­tis­an­ship here,” a Demo­crat­ic com­mit­tee aide said. “We’re equally as con­cerned, equally un­happy with how this has all played out, and equally hope­ful that we can work to find a way so that we don’t re­peat past mis­takes.” The aide ad­ded: “Though, really, it’s more like a bi­par­tis­an dark spot.”

That will­ing­ness to reach across the aisle, com­mit­tee mem­bers say, is crit­ic­al be­cause to deal with the chal­lenges that lay ahead, con­sensus will be key.