Congress passes comprehensive weather forecasting and research bill
A sweeping piece of legislation that aims to improve forecasts for everything from Category 5 hurricanes to El Nino has passed both houses of Congress.
Years in the making, it will become the first major piece of weather legislation enacted since the early 1990s if signed by the president.
The 97-page bill, the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2017, H.R. 353, gained bipartisan support in Congress. It passed by the Senate on Thursday and the House of Representatives on Tuesday afternoon.
“The Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act is a major step toward more accurate and timely weather predictions, and I am eager to see these life-saving policies signed into law soon,” said Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.).
The bill places a great deal of emphasis on research that will improve forecasts for extreme weather events from the short-range to the long-term.
“Research into the atmosphere provides an enormous return on investment,” said Antonio J. Busalacchi, president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, which supported the bill. “Weather affects all of us, and being able to make plans based on forecasts of likely weather conditions is literally worth many billions of dollars to households and businesses.”
An entire section of the bill, championed by Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), is devoted to improving weather forecasts between two weeks and two years into future, which would prove tremendously valuable for farmers and utilities.
Another section of the bill is focused on stimulating the private sector to generate weather data that the government can use to improve forecasts. “With this bipartisan effort, we will improve forecasting by looking to the private sector for new technologies and weather solutions,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.). “This bill gives NOAA a clear vision and allows them the flexibility to buy new, affordable, and potentially better sources of data.”
The bill earned endorsement from broad segments of academic and private sectors of the weather community.
“I am very pleased to see the Congress pass this bill,” said David Titley, professor of meteorology at Penn State. “Improving weather related safety of our people and our assets is not political — it’s just common sense.”
Containing scores of provisions, the bill would require the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to, for example:
- Establish a program to improve tornado warnings.
- Protect the Hurricane Forecast Improvement Program, whose funding was previously slashed.
- Develop a formal plan for weather research.
- Develop an annual report on the state of its weather models.
- Develop forecasts on the subseasonal (two weeks to three months), seasonal (three months to one year) and interannual (up to two years) time scales.
- Consider options to buy commercially provided weather satellite data rather than launch expensive government satellites.
- Improve its watch-and-warning system based on recommendations from social and behavioral scientists.
- Conduct a study of gaps in weather radar coverage around the nation
- Acquire back-up for hurricane hunter aircraft
- Modernize the U.S. tsunami warning system, improve tsunami research, and strengthen education efforts
The bill sets priorities and authorizes funding for many of these initiatives, but does not necessarily signal new or increased funding for NOAA.
“NOAA and the Weather Service will require adequate resources to pursue these improvements,” Titley said. “I believe the Congress will continue to show leadership on our nation’s weather capabilities and appropriate the resources needed by the NOAA professionals.”
Programs not protected by this legislation could be jeopardized if NOAA’s overall funding is slashed, as proposed in the president’s budget.
The bill was introduced by Sen. Thune and Rep. Lucas, in the Senate and House. Bill co-sponsors include Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Reps. Smith, Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), Dana Rohrabacher (R-Tex.), Chris Stewart (R-Utah), Aumua Amata Coleman Radewagen (R-AS), and Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore).