Major Weather Research Bill Approaching Finish Line

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Publication date: 
12 January 2017
Number: 
5

On Monday, the House passed a weather research and forecasting innovation bill that has been four years in the making. It is slightly different from a version the Senate passed in December which the House chose not to consider before the end of the 114th Congress.

Following nearly four years of debate, discussion drafts, and hearings, the House passed the bipartisan “Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act” in a unanimous voice vote on Monday. The legislation would be the first major update to weather research and forecasting policy at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in at least a decade.

The bill’s passage in the House comes a month after a similar attempt in the 114th Congress’ lame duck session fell apart due to a dispute between the Florida and Georgia congressional delegations over a water resources provision in the bill. The complicating provision, along with an entire section authorizing NOAA’s new National Water Center, was excluded from the bill the House passed on Monday. It is unclear if the Senate will accept the new version of the bill as is or whether further work is necessary.

Four titles comprise major weather research bill

The House-passed bill has four titles, reflecting the contributions of the members of the House Science Committee and Senate Commerce Committee and the outcomes of bicameral negotiations in the 114th Congress:

Title I: U.S. Weather Research and Forecasting Improvement

  • Authorizes fiscal year 2017 and 2018 funds for a focused program of weather research;
  • Promotes strategic planning and prioritization at the weather agency;
  • Reauthorizes the U.S. Weather Research Program; and
  • Establishes and authorizes funding for a new joint technology transfer initiative.

Title II: Sub-seasonal and Seasonal Forecasting Innovation

  • Authorizes fiscal year 2017 and 2018 funds to invest in sub-seasonal to seasonal forecasting (in the time range of between two weeks and two years).

Title III: Weather Satellite and Data Innovation

  • Directs NOAA to complete the COSMIC-2 microsatellite program;
  • Requires NOAA to consult with the National Academy of Sciences on future satellite needs; and
  • Promotes the future use of commercial weather data through an ongoing pilot program.

Title IV: Federal Weather Coordination

  • Authorizes a range of activities to improve weather research-to-operations; and
  • Promotes coordination between federal agencies and across the private, public, and academic sectors of the U.S. weather enterprise.

Many of the sections of the bill were inspired by recommendations from reports authored by experts in the U.S. weather enterprise, including a National Academy of Sciences report published in 2012 entitled Weather Services for the Nation: Becoming Second to None and a National Academy of Public Administration report published in 2013 entitled Forecast for the Future: Assuring the Capacity of the National Weather Service. Other sections were included because they are priorities of individual members of the Senate Commerce Committee or House Science Committee subcommittees that drafted the legislation.

Sponsors agree on bill’s vital importance

Speaking on the House floor on Monday, Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK), the bill’s lead sponsor, remarked that its purpose is to prioritize “improving weather forecasting for the protection of lives and property.”  Indeed, the opening section of Title I of the bill explicitly directs NOAA to prioritize its research portfolio to these ends. Among the other ways the bill will do so, he said, will be “by focusing research and computing resources on improved weather forecasting, quantitative observing data planning, next generation modeling, and an emphasis on research-to-operations technology transfer.

Lucas also emphasized that much is at stake in the nation's approach to severe weather preparedness:

Every year, the loss of life from deadly tornadoes in my home state is a stark reminder that we can do better to predict severe weather events and provide longer lead times to protect Americans in harm’s way….

Moreover, he echoed a point often made in debates over the bill that the U.S. has fallen behind the rest of the world in weather forecasting, warning:

It is no secret that many people in our weather community are distraught that our forecasting capacities have deteriorated in recent years. While other countries are making great strides…, Americans are paying the price for diminished leadership….

noaa-nssl-tornado.jpg

NOAA-led field study of tornados

The “Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act” would establish a tornado warning improvement program at NOAA to reduce the loss of life and economic impacts due to tornadoes. There is an analogous section that would establish a similar program for hurricane forecasting improvement.

(Image credit - NOAA)

Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), ranking member of the Environment Subcommittee of the House Science Committee, also spoke in favor of the bill on the House floor on Monday, lauding it for tying NOAA’s research “more effectively to the forecasting needs of the National Weather Service.” House Science Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) praised the bill and reminded her colleagues that “weather affects all of us everyday.

Neither the Obama administration nor NOAA has released a statement or taken a position on the bill. Notably, however, NOAA Administrator Kathy Sullivan expressed reservations about an earlier form of the legislation in testimony to the House Science Committee in June 2014. She was concerned at the time that the bill prioritized short-term research goals over long-range basic research and preferred one important mission area (weather science) to the detriment of others (climate and ocean science). In her testimony, Sullivan also cautioned against “legislative language [that is] too prescriptive,” calling out a section of the bill that would require NOAA to conduct so-called observing system experiments at times that may not be appropriate.

Bill the product of four years of bipartisan, bicameral work

The weather bill’s origins stretch back to June 2013, when Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), then a freshman congressman, introduced the “Weather Forecasting Improvement Act” with a focus on promoting the commercial production of weather data and information. The House passed Bridenstine’s bill with bipartisan support in April 2014, but even then the Environment Subcommittee continued to work on it.

In March 2015, the full House Science Committee approved an updated and expanded version, now with its current title. While the bill has continued to expand in scope, Bridenstine said as recently as last July that in his view the “main tenet of [the bill] is its recognition of the role commercial weather data can play as a piece of the solutions available to NOAA.

The Senate Commerce Committee held its own weather hearings in 2014 and 2015. In May and June 2015, respectively, the committee approved a set of two NOAA weather research and forecasting bills, both sponsored by Chairman John Thune (R-SD) and Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI).

The House and Senate then sat on their respective bills until the 114th Congress’ lame duck session, when the bills’ sponsors negotiated compromise legislation behind the scenes. Staff anticipated the compromise bill could clear both chambers, and the Senate did pass the bill by unanimous consent on Dec. 8, but it faltered in the House over the water resources dispute.

Now, there is optimism that both chambers will finally pass the legislation. Speaking on the floor on Monday, Bridenstine said that he anticipates “swift Senate passage and that the president will sign it into law.” House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) also said that he looks forward to the “Senate approving [the] bill soon.

 

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