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Bill Would Shift NOAA Resources from Climate Research

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A bill being drafted in the House could potentially undermine the climate science research activities and the oceans programs of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). It also would open up the weather satellite sector, which has been a troubled area for NOAA in recent years, to more privatization.

This image from the Suomi-NPP weather satellite jointly developed by NOAA and NASA shows Hurricane Sandy moving up the eastern seaboard on Oct. 29, 2012.
Credit: NOAA/NASA.

The bill, known as the “Weather Forecasting Improvement Act,” would put more emphasis on research and development of new weather forecasting capabilities for anticipating near-term, high-impact events, such as tornadoes and hurricanes, at the possible expense of two of the agency’s other long-standing areas of focus — climate and marine science.

The bill was the subject of a May 23 hearing in the House Science Subcommittee on the Environment. It has not yet been formally introduced, and is largely being drafted by Republicans on the subcommittee, which has jurisidiction over NOAA’s National Weather Service, according to several close observers of the legislation.

Representatives of NOAA and the academic research community were absent from the hearing, which featured members of two private sector weather companies — AccuWeather and GeoOptics. In the past, AccuWeather has backed legislation to open more of NOAA’s activities to private competition.

NOAA said it was invited to the hearing but did not receive sufficient advanced notice to allow it to formulate a response to the bill and also clear testimony through the White House. The agency has asked for an opportunity to testify at a subsequent hearing. The subcommittee’s Democratic members requested a second hearing to give NOAA officials a chance to testify, and to bring in representatives of the academic research community, as well.

The hearing came largely in response to news coverage of the increasing gap between the accuracy of NOAA’s main weather forecasting model, known as the Global Forecast System (GFS) and a model run by the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, or ECMWF. For example, the ECMWF model correctly projected Hurricane Sandy’s devastating left turn into the New Jersey coast about a week in advance, whereas the GFS model didn’t project that outcome until the storm was closer to the East Coast.

To try to narrow the modeling gap, the bill would direct NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research to undertake a research program to hone forecast accuracy, "placing priority on developing more accurate and timely warnings and forecasts of high-impact weather events that endanger life and property." The program would include a technology transfer component to ensure that insights and tools discovered on the research side of NOAA also benefit the operational side of the agency.

Currently, NOAA relies on many partnerships with the academic community to research new technology and provide new scientific insights, and has long had difficulty translating research conducted in one part of the multifaceted agency into successful programs in another part.

"The bill is an attempt to improve the role research plays in driving science into operations, which is a good concept, but NOAA does not have a stellar record when it comes to executing these transitions,” said Scott Rayder, senior advisor to the president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., a consortium which operates the National Center for Atmospheric Research and represents 104 research universities.

The draft bill would also require the NOAA chief information officer to issue a plan for allocating and developing high-performance computing capabilities to support improvements in the agency’s weather prediction models. Currently, NOAA lags behind the European Center and other forecasting centers worldwide when it comes to computing power, which has been pinpointed as a major contributing factor to the Europeans’ lead in weather modeling, but money recently appropriated by Congress as part of the supplemental bill in response to Hurricane Sandy is being used to address that.

As National Weather Service director Louis Uccellini told Climate Central earlier this month, the infusion of funding will allow the agency to triple its computing capacity. ““To go from 213 to 1,950 terraflops is the largest increase in computing capacity that we’ve ever had,” Uccellini said. 

The draft bill also requires NOAA’s chief information officer to identify opportunities to “reallocate advanced-computing resources from lower-priority uses to improve operational weather prediction.” This section of the bill could result in a reduction in resources for NOAA’s climate research programs.

NOAA is responsible for monitoring the U.S. and global climate system, producing a steady stream of reports to the nation. This graphic shows the January-May temperatures compared to average in the lower 48 states, when temperatures were the hottest on record. 
Credit: NOAA/NCDC.

Subcommittee chairman Chris Stewart (R-Utah) said the bill “would balance NOAA's research portfolio by emphasizing weather research with the potential to protect lives and property.”

“In 2012, NOAA barely spent one-third of the resources on weather research as it did on climate research,” he said.

According to President Obama's Fiscal Year 2014 budget, NOAA would comprise the second-largest component of the U.S. Global Change Research Program, coming in second behind NASA. The agency currently issues climate projections utilizing cutting-edge computer models, and monitors the global climate system. It is also the home of the official climate data of the U.S., which is maintained at its National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C.

NOAA's draft five-year research plan also contains a mix of weather and climate research programs aimed at making America more resilient in the face of extreme weather events, some of which are already becoming more intense and frequent due, in part, to manmade climate change.

Marshall Shepherd, a professor at the University of Georgia and president of the American Meteorological Society, told Climate Central that it is essential to maintain NOAA’s leadership in climate research while also improving weather forecasting. “I am fully supportive of making the U.S. the best weather modelers in the world, but we must also maintain a viable short (6-month to 2-year) and long-term climate modeling capacity,” he said in an email. “It would be short-sighted to dismantle that world-class capability.”

Mary Glackin, a former top administrator at NOAA now working at the American Meteorological Society, also said it would be shortsighted to elevate weather forecasting needs at the expense of climate prediction. Of the draft bill, she said, “It places weather at the forefront to potentially the exclusion to other earth science research work that may be done at NOAA.”

Glackin said that is flawed because there is a “spectrum of continuity” between weather and climate forecasts, and people — and most especially businesses — need information at different time scales.

The legislation only concerns NOAA’s atmospheric sciences programs, despite the many other federal agencies that conduct such research, including the Energy Department and the National Science Foundation. ““They’re trying to address this weather problem by only looking at NOAA, and I think that’s flawed. They have to look at federal investments across the board,” Glackin said.

Opening Weather Satellites to the Private Sector

The bill also seeks to address another looming gap, this one concerning weather satellites. The next generation of federal weather satellites are running years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget, leading to calls to reform the satellite procurement system, and the bill responds to that need by allowing the government to purchase weather data from private weather satellite operators.

The launch of the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership spacecraft on Oct. 28, 2011. This is the most up-to-date polar-orbiting satellite providing data to NOAA weather forecasters and researchers.
Credit: NASA.

In allowing for such private sector data purchases, the legislation could boost a burgeoning private weather satellite industry while altering some of the satellite systems currently under development. Currently, the government works with the private sector to build and launch satellites, and NOAA and NASA operate them once in orbit. 

NOAA has said that starting in 2017, there is likely to be a year-long gap in polar satellite coverage between the end of the design lifetime of the newest  polar-orbiting satellite, and the launch of the next one. Just last week one of NOAA’s geostationary weather satellites mysteriously malfunctioned, forcing a backup satellite to take over.

GeoOptics, whose CEO, Conrad Lautenbacher, led NOAA during the Bush administration, is seeking to launch 24 or more satellites into low Earth orbit during the next eight years, and hopes to sell its environmental data to the government. Jon Kirchner, president and chief operating officer of GeoOptics, testified at the hearing along with Barry Myers, the co-founder of AccuWeather.

“The status quo of continuously purchasing costly systems and marginally effective improvements in current weather sensors effectively blocks investments in potentially new, more potent, lower cost, and proven data-sensing instruments, and is damaging our nation’s ability to keep pace in weather observations and predictions,” Kirchner told the members of the subcommittee.

Glackin, who led NOAA’s National Satellite and Information Service from 1999 until 2002, said buying data from the private sector would be “appropriate in some circumstances.” For example, she cited NOAA’s experience with buying lightning strike data from the private sector since the mid-1990s, rather than setting up a federal lightning observing network.

A caveat to such arrangements, Glackin said, is that even when the government buys data from a third-party provider, the risk still is borne by the government. In the event that the private company fails to deliver the data as expected, the government would then be responsible for that failure in most instances. “You should never lose sight that even if you’re buying data you’re not really transferring risk from the federal government.”

In addition, Glackin said that the public receives data from publicly owned satellites free of charge, but most private companies won’t be willing to just give away their data. For now, that data is available to the public, to businesses and to other countries, too. That could become a major sticking point in any contract negotiations. “If you’re going to use federal taxpayers’ dollars to procure it, it should be freely available to those taxpayers,” Glackin said. “The devil is in the details in these things.” 

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Comments

By Camburn (North Dakota)
on May 28th, 2013

This bill sounds like a very good idea.  NOAA has lost sight of its core mission, which is short term weather forecasts.

It is obvious the current “status quo” is not acceptable.

Reply to this comment

By Andrew Freedman (New York, NY)
on May 28th, 2013

I received this commentary on the bill from Paul Higgins, who directs the American Meteorological Society’s policy program in Washington. Am adding here as a comment:

“The bill is very prescriptive about what scientific research should get done. It is counter-productive to scientific advancement (and the societal benefits that result) if Congress sets priorities this specifically. Of course, there is an important role for Congress to play in determining priorities but to me the bill discounts the assessment of needs and opportunities done within the agencies and by the relevant expert communities.”

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By Eric Peterson (Front Royal, VA 22630)
on May 29th, 2013

It would be nice to shift the focus from mostly incorrect “Chicken Little” prognostications to reducing the risk from the unpredictability of weather.  For example we have been warned since http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hurricane_Wilma (2005) that would be clobbered with these major hurricanes.  How many millions have we spent on studies about the increase in major hurricanes (e.g. “fewer but stronger”, etc).  Instead we have seen the longest period on record without a major hurricane strike.

Luck?  Sure.  That’s what weather is all about.  It doesn’t matter weather global warming makes any one storm a bit stronger (likely) or changes the patterns (unlikely).  The 1 in a million event will happen whether we have global warming or not.  It might happen sooner, but that is not in evidence.  If strong storms become the worldwide norm, that is negative feedback reducing the warming from CO2 and making sea level rise a nonissue.

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By Clff Mass (Seattle/WA/98195)
on May 29th, 2013

Andrew,
      I will only partially agree with you.  Although this bill does have some real problems (gives the funds to OAR instead of the NWS, does not support extramural research) and the hearing had an extraordinarily one-sided panel, I DO think it is on to something by calling for a rebalancing of the U.S. research portfolio so that weather prediction gets more of share.  This needs to happen.  How do you explain that climate research has hundreds of times more computer resources than weather prediction?  Or that agencies support tens of millions of extramural research for climate and virtually nothing for weather prediction?  Or that the WRF model gets far less resources at NCAR than CCSM.  I could give you ten other examples without breaking a sweat.  Things need to change.  Even if you are interested in climate.  If climate changes and the weather extremes are altered, weather prediction is our first line of defense.  Climate and weather models are essentially the same, and advances in weather prediction more seamlessly into climate.  So I think the Republicans on that committee are on to something useful and helpful.  NOAA has had an anti-weather bias in favor of climate and oceans.  They have starved the NWS for some strange reason. Finally, I would suggest that weather research has done far more for the nation and world than U.S. climate research—a statement I would be happy to defend…cliff

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By Andrew
on May 29th, 2013

Cliff,

I’m not sure why you think I laid out an argument against the bill in this story, since it’s a news story about a bill, citing various expert views on it, not an opinion piece.

But let me respond to your thoughtful comment:

Climate models and weather models are not exactly the same in both design and the computing power required to run them, and running weather models won’t provide the sorts of climate prediction (short and long-term, including ENSO forecasts and projections of climate change) that users of all sorts have been clamoring for, from the financial sector and insurance companies to farmers. (Also, if the models are the same, as you say, wouldn’t this work the other way around too, with advances in climate translating into weather?)

You see this as an either/or between weather and climate, which may be how the bill’s authors see it as well, whereas NOAA and others in the public and private weather enterprise see a need for a portfolio of activities including weather AND climate forecasting and research.

The NWS already announced plans to beef up their supercomputing resources, which should bring them ahead of the ECMWF within the next several years.

Also, your assertion that: “If climate changes and the weather extremes are altered, weather prediction is our first line of defense” makes it seem like the climate is a) not changing and b) extremes are not already being altered, when numerous studies have shown instances in which the odds are already shifting in favor of certain extreme events, such as heat waves and heavy precip events. Climate models can simulate future changes in extremes, which provides valuable knowledge to urban planners and political leaders, while short-term weather forecasting investments can help us anticipate the extremes before they occur. IMO, investments in both areas are necessary to make America more resilient to weather and climate extremes.

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By Cliff Mass (Seattle/WA/98195)
on May 29th, 2013

Andrew,
    Perhaps I was not clear enough in my note.  I believe there needs to be a rebalancing of U.S. effort—I am not pushing this as an either/or situation.  We need to do BOTH weather and climate research, but the current situation is terribly biased towards climate.  This should be changed.  The basic models are very similar….trust me about this, I am a modeler.  For example, there is a constant exchange of physics parameterizations between climate/weather models and next generation climate models will have the resolution of weather models of only a few years ago.  I think you are reading something into my comments about climate change than what I stated…I said nothing about what has happened or will.  If climate change alters extremes than forecasting them in the days before is very important.  Surely you don’t disagree with that.  I do believe that current extreme weather is often hyped by some as proof of climate change.  ..cliff

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By Andrew
on May 29th, 2013

Cliff - thanks for the clarification. There are some (quoted in this story) who don’t necessarily think there needs to be a rebalancing, which implies reducing resources in one area to boost them in another. Rather, what is needed may be a boost in weather resources while keeping climate research/operational forecasting intact. Of course, that is easier said than done in this fiscal climate.

And yes, I do agree that forecasting extremes in advance is vitally important, and also think that some hype extremes as proof of climate change when the reality is that the evidence is more solid on some types of extremes (heat, heavy precip) than others (tropical cyclones, tornadoes). Best - A.

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By John Ben
on May 29th, 2013

Good grief, European weather forecasting is ahead of the US. Living in the UK I can attest to the fact that weather forecasting more than three days out in Europe is abismal.

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By Pat Michaels (Washington DC 20001)
on May 29th, 2013

People have often asked me what it would take to eliminate the cheerleading alarmism that comes from the USGCRP, and my standard response has been to rationalize the research funding, rather than using it in a positive feedback in which alarmism buys funding which buys more alarmism etc…(The Hansen model, for want of a better name).

What’s proposed here will change the incentive structure and we will then revert to a more reasoned discussion of climate change, i.e. that it is one of many interesting atmospheric issues and it may actually, just possibly, maybe not actually be the end of the world that it was supposed to be when the incentive structure rewarded that.

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By Jamie Scott (Boulder/CO/80304)
on May 29th, 2013

Congress has neglected investing in the NWS, satellites and weather forecasting research for decades.  Contrary to some inferences from sub-committee chairman Stuart, NOAA does not decide how much funding NWS gets compared to climate research.  This is done by the House and Senate and approved by the President.  This bill is just an attempt to make gutting climate research and privatizing NOAA’s satellite program seem like a good idea to the public.

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By Anonymous (Washington DC 20001)
on May 29th, 2013

Hi Andrew,

Nice story.  I agree that the House GOP approach has misfired and their approach is unlikely to be effective.  You bristle over the word “re-balancing” of the portfolio (taking from one to feed the other) and I agree that should not be the approach taken here.  However, in Cliff’s defense, I think I do understand what he is getting at, which is that a “re-balancing” of the portfolio has ALREADY happened at NOAA for the past decade, in which the NWS has been consistently starved in order to allocate money to climate (and to satellites as well).  In the past decade, there was no open discussion about the cost or benefits of such an approach of starving one area to feed the other.  It just happened, largely behind CLOSED doors, and now that the NWS is literally screaming about the lack of resources (check out the nwseo.org page for details), we are now witnessing NOAA leadership pipe up about the “lack of resources.”  While appreciated, it feels more than a little behind the curve and it is not necessarily aimed at shoring up the weather enterprise (4-day furloughs proposed for weather forecasters for example) or creating functional weather-climate linkages.  So, you say that it shouldn’t be a zero sum game, but I would say that it has already been a zero sum game for a decade and it has largely come at the expense of the weather community.  In the future, I hope that these two timescales don’t have to come into conflict with each other (they benefit each other too much!) but let’s investigate what has gone on in the past (not deny it) and what exactly went wrong to arrive at this situation, so we don’t make the same mistakes. 

—anonymous (I am a govt employee who works with both weather and climate at NOAA)

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By Ben Lieberman (Maynard)
on May 29th, 2013

There’s good reason to improve forecasting models, but this bill is a thinly disguised effort to punish climate scientists and research. The real message from the Republicans who reject science unless they need health care for themselves or their families: don’t mock our ignorance.

Reply to this comment

By Retired-FAA (Washington, DC 20024)
on May 30th, 2013

Does NOAA have a short memory or is it Congress?
Wasn’t Conrad Lautenbacher the NOAA adminstractor that almost bankrupted the NPOESS satellite program before Congress hauled him in?

As a taxpayer I wouldn’t be dealing with a company that he heads.  He has a bad track record of not keeping cost and schedule under control.

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By FishOutofWater (Jacksonville, NC)
on May 31st, 2013

If Congress wants better weather forecast models and more forecasters they should pay for them. The pitting of weather vs climate by congress critters with ties to specific corporate interests has the stench of corruption. The privatization schemes are not appropriate for weather and climate data which need to be shared globally for the public good. Giving individual companies monopolistic control of data that are needed by the international weather forecasting community is a recipe for price manipulation, data hostage crises and general inefficiency. We don’t want NOAA to operate like Congress.

Hurricane Sandy is the example of storms to come as the north Atlantic ocean heats up more than the other ocean basins. Record high water temperatures in the top 100 meters of the northwest Atlantic ocean made Sandy possible. The record low levels of sea ice in the Arctic may also have played a role in the blocking high over Greenland that turned Sandy towards the Jersey shore. That’s a debatable possibility. What’s clear to me is that freakish hybrid storms like Sandy are becoming more likely as the north Atlantic heats up. And for you “skeptics” the western Pacific has become quieter and the accumulated cyclone energy is down, so I’m not claiming that climate change is increasing global hurricane energy, because we aren’t seeing that.

NOAA and NASA need increased funds for weather forecasting, oceanography research and climate research.

Budget austerity is an unnecessary disaster wrought by people with an extreme privatization agenda. It has brought needless recession, unemployment, misery and economic decline to Europe. Americans must reject the austerity agenda which is already damaging our economy. Investments into weather forecasting and climate research should not be pitted against each other when interest rates are effectively zero.

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