Some caution is required in trimming the NOAA budget

One of the bits of significant good news for fiscal conservatives (and already a source of endless insanity for liberals) is the serious nature with which President Trump has approached budget-cutting measures and cost reductions. Many departments, such as the Environmental Protection Agency (among others), will have redundant services eliminated and be forced to tighten their belts along with the rest of the country. There may, however, be some cases where the ax might wind up swinging too heavily. One of these is found in the recent announcement regarding budget cuts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). While there is no doubt some fat available to be cut in this agency, just like all the others, early suggestions indicate that the hammer might be landing pretty heavily on the satellite data division. (Washington Post)

The Trump administration is seeking to slash the budget of one of the government’s premier climate science agencies by 17 percent, delivering steep cuts to research funding and satellite programs, according to a four-page budget memo obtained by The Washington Post.

The proposed cuts to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would also eliminate funding for a variety of smaller programs, including external research, coastal management, estuary reserves and “coastal resilience,” which seeks to bolster the ability of coastal areas to withstand major storms and rising seas…

The OMB outline for the Commerce Department for fiscal 2018 proposed sharp reductions in specific areas within NOAA such as spending on education, grants and research. NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research would lose $126 million, or 26 percent, of the funds it has under the current budget. Its satellite data division would lose $513 million, or 22 percent, of its current funding under the proposal.

It’s not surprising that the Washington Post chooses to frame this discussion in terms of “climate change!” and how terrible the Trump administration must be. But this is one of those perhaps rare cases where they are arriving at the correct answer even if they take a rather twisted path to get there.

The proposed cuts of more than a quarter of the NOAA budget are slated to include more than half a billion dollars from the satellite data division, or roughly one fifth of their funding. Having followed the news concerning our weather satellites for some time now I found this announcement immediately troubling. That represents a major cut at a time when our weather satellite coverage is already skating on thin ice. This recent report from the GAO highlighted the risk we are currently facing on that front, with the very real possibility of a gap in coverage by our polar orbiting satellites in the near future.

The United States relies on two complementary types of satellite systems for weather observations and forecasts: (1) polar-orbiting satellites that provide a global perspective every morning and afternoon, and (2) geostationary satellites that maintain a fixed view of the United States. Both types of systems are critical to weather forecasters, climatologists, and the military, who map and monitor changes in weather, climate, the oceans, and the environment. Federal agencies are currently planning or executing major satellite acquisition programs to replace existing polar and geostationary satellite systems that are nearing the end of, or beyond, their expected life spans. Specifically, NOAA is responsible for the polar satellite program that crosses the equator in the afternoon and for the geostationary satellite program, while DOD is responsible for the polar satellite program that crosses the equator in the early morning orbit. However, these programs have troubled legacies of cost increases, missed milestones, technical problems, and management challenges that have reduced functionality and delayed launch dates. As a result, the continuity of weather satellite data is at risk.

The federal government spends literally tons of money every year on a host of things which are, in the minds of many, dubious at best. In fact, one cornerstone of fiscal conservative ideology is probably based less on the need to save money and pay down the debt than on the simple principle that giving Washington less cash to work with might keep them from getting up to so much mischief. This is not, however, the case when it comes to the activities of the National Weather Service. In a rare and pleasant exception to the rule, they do work which people actually need done and benefit from on a daily basis. It’s easy to forget just how bad things were in the days before modern, short-term weather forecasting technology, particularly when it comes to hurricanes and tornadoes.

It remains an admirable goal to not only reduce waste and abuse in the federal budget but to cut spending across the board and force the bureaucracy to live within its means. But when we find one of these unusual instances where they are actually doing something incredibly useful and also somehow manage to be fairly good at it, that’s really not an area we want to be taking an ax to. With that in mind, we might want to go a bit more easy on the NOAA budget while providing the oversight required to ensure they stick to actual science such as short-term weather forecasting and not political theater.

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