Great news: Congress to finally fix weather forecasting

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.