As an introduction to this story I would like to briefly relate a personal experience from last week which involved my attending an annual clambake hosted by one of the popular social clubs in my town on Saturday. It’s something that we look forward to every year and I bought my tickets many months in advance. Since it’s primarily outdoors (though there are pavilion tents) the weather is always a concern, so I was checking in with my weather channel app on my phone all week long. The forecast, fortunately, was a good one. It shifted a bit over the preceding seven days, varying from sunny and mild to partly cloudy to breezy and clear. That lasted right up until Friday. On Saturday afternoon the rain started just as they were bringing out the first batch of steamers.
Since this is not at all an unusual occurrence for many of us you can imagine my excitement when I read the headline, Congress Wants to Fix the Government’s Weather Forecasting System. That’s awesome! Unfortunately it doesn’t really seem to apply to day by day concerns, but rather the ability of our satellites to help us forecast disaster level weather events. (Government Executive)
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.
All weatherman jokes aside, this is a fairly serious subject which I’ve had to research in the past for other projects. Our satellite coverage is now the primary tool used for monitoring major storm activity over the oceans which is vital to accurate predictions. (Though the multitude of computer models which use that data still come up with wildly different hurricane path predictions at times.) On land we have a lot more tools at our disposal, but over the oceans it’s pretty much the satellites or nothing. You can read a short, well written description of the NOAA satellite system here.
We run two geostationary satellites (GOES-15 and GOES-13) which monitor the weather for us. One of them covers North and South America and most of the Atlantic Ocean and the other one covers the Pacific basin. Allegedly we have another one up there (GOES-14) which is “stored in orbit” in case one of those two fail, but both of them are nearing the end of their predicted operational life. There are also two polar orbiting birds which provide coordinating data.
I’m not entirely sure why Congress is dragging their feet on funding this program. (A bill to do so already passed in the House earlier this year but the Senate has yet to take the issue up.) I do understand the frustration of some of the members of Congress. Our track record for at least some weather predicting isn’t exactly pristine.
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.
In some ways I think we’re being a little hard on the agency. I’ve sort of come to accept the fact that no matter how much equipment you have it’s hard to nail down the performance of something as complicated as a planetary weather system even five or seven days out. It’s one of the reasons that I frequently tell people I’ll begin worrying about your predictions as to what the weather will be doing in two hundred years as soon as you can reliably tell me on Monday whether I’ll need an umbrella when I go to the butcher shop on Friday. But the satellite data does seem to be critical and it’s really the only good way to track hurricanes. We should probably get those new birds fully funded, upgraded and launched. It’s not a budget busting amount of money, it definitely provides a service which is of use to the entire country and frankly… we need it.