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Obama Budget Boosts Weather, Climate Funding

The Obama administration’s Fiscal Year 2014 budget request, released on Wednesday, contains a modest funding increase for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and its National Weather Service (NWS). The budget request would provide about $5.45 billion for NOAA, which is an increase of about $200 million from the Fiscal Year 2013 enacted level.

Image of Earth taken by the newest polar orbiting satellite, known as the Suomi NPP satellite.
Click to enlarge the image. Credit: NASA

The administration’s budget does not include the across-the-board budget cuts that are now in effect due to mandatory spending reductions, referred to as “sequestration.” Due to sequestration-related cuts, NOAA has imposed an agency-wide hiring freeze, so the budget request — if enacted by Congress in its current form, which is highly unlikely —would result in a major departure from how the agency is currently operating.

The budget request includes money to upgrade the NWS’ computer systems, for climate research, and for the addition of some high-tech research tools such as unmanned aerial vehicles, which NOAA is exploring for use in investigating hurricanes, and detecting and responding to oil spills.

“This year’s budget request of approximately $5.4 billion aims to: 1) ensure the readiness, responsiveness, and resiliency of communities from coast to coast; 2) help protect lives and property; and, 3) support vibrant coastal communities and economies,” said acting NOAA administrator Kathryn Sullivan, in a statement accompanying the budget release.

Under the administration's budget, the NWS would receive additional funds to develop a new telecommunications infrastructure and enhance its operational weather supercomputer so that it can “become a competitive, world class system.” In recent years, the NWS has lagged behind other countries in the performance of its weather forecast models, with a European model accurately forecasting the devastating path of Hurricane Sandy days before the main American forecast model did.

The agency proposes to achieve savings by consolidating its information technology employees in regional centers, rather than having them located throughout the agency’s forecast offices around the country.

The administration’s budget would also add $1.5 million for the NWS’ drought early warning system, $542,000 to develop its “online climate portal,” and $7 million to fund 10 full-time employees to conduct research into “urgent climate issues.”  

The budget request also include an increase of about $23 million to meet NWS labor costs. This increase may come in response to a budget scandal that forced the sudden resignation of the NWS director last year, when it was revealed that the agency was moving money internally to meet budget shortfalls without the required congressional approval.

In addition, the budget request would provide funding to maintain a network of buoys in the tropical Pacific Ocean that are used for predicting the development of El Niño and La Niña events. The budget would set a goal of maintaining at least 80 percent of that network at all times. 

NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite Data and Information Service, or NESDIS, which receives the largest share of NOAA’s budget due to the expense of the agency's satellite systems, would be funded at $2.2 billion, which would also be an increase from the Fiscal Year 2013 enacted level.

The budget request follows up on a 2012 advisory panel recommendation to move the development of climate sensors for the next-generation of polar-orbiting satellites out of NOAA and under the purview of NASA, which would allow NOAA to speed up satellite development. Such a move would not, however, eliminate the high likelihood of a temporary gap in satellite coverage starting in about 2016, as a current polar-orbiting satellite, known as the Suomi NPP satellite, reaches the end of its design lifetime before a replacement vehicle is ready to be launched. This satellite gap is likely to reduce the accuracy of medium-range weather forecasts.

On the research front, the budget request would boost spending for the Office of Atmospheric Research, and provide $143 million for climate research, an increase of $45 million from the Fiscal Year 2013 enacted level.

The administration's budget request would also add funding for climate adaptation programs in other government agencies, such as the Transportation Department.

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