Senate Subcommittee Discusses Forecasting Capabilities and Weather Readiness

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Publication date: 
17 January 2014

The Senate Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard held a December 12 hearing to assess efforts at the National Weather Service (NWS) to improve access, accuracy, and timing of weather forecasting and predictions.  The hearing demonstrated the bi-partisan interest in preventing economic losses and reducing the human toll caused by extreme weather events.  Coordination and cooperation efforts by the weather community were a focus of the discussions throughout the hearing as senators sought to build a “weather ready nation.”

Subcommittee Chairman Mark Begich (D-AK) opened the hearing by emphasizing the importance of the public-private partnership between the NWS and private sector and academic partners.  Partnerships are “key to physical, economic, and environmental security,” he noted as he described the efforts of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the NWS to deliver weather data used in weather forecasting.  He advocated for increased understanding of human factors that contribute to weather events and a better system to respond to weather information.  He also mentioned the need to refocus the weather workforce to improve partnerships with emergency management personnel and stakeholders along with continuous technological improvements to improve weather research capabilities. 

Ranking Member Marco Rubio (R-FL) discussed the vital role of forecasting for farmers and fishermen as he outlined results of recent reports by the National Academies of Science and National Academy of Public Administration.  He expressed concern about weather forecasting efficiencies caused by satellite launch delays and wanted to find a productive path forward for the NWS, emphasizing the important role of the commercial sector. 

Louis W. Uccellini, Assistant Administrator for Weather Services and Director of the National Weather Service was the first witness to testify.  He outlined four fundamental components to the forecasting process: global observations, numerical weather prediction models, supercomputers, and a well-educated and trained workforce.  “Prediction capabilities are becoming a fusion point that emergency managers, broadcasters, federal agencies, and the public increasingly turn to as a trusted source that distills scientific information into ‘impacts coming my way,’” he stated.   He described the current state of weather predictions, the increased focus on weather decisions that affect societal needs, collaboration between NOAA and commercial weather sector, and weather research and computing partnerships.

Questions from senators focused on the U.S. weather research program; the Arctic weather operations; and the coordination between the Coast Guard, federal, and commercial sector in the Arctic.  Public-private partnership priorities examined include efficient use of digital databases.  Also discussed were budget restructuring and program alignment.  

The second panel included five witnesses.  William Gail, Co-founder and Chief Technology Officer for the Global Weather Corporation and President-Elect of the American Meteorological Society, an AIP Member Society, spoke about the National Research Council study Weather Services for the Nation: Becoming Second to None, the final report of a two-part assessment of the National Weather Service’s Modernization and Associated Restructuring.  “Support for our nation’s weather infrastructure pays off many times in benefit to the nation,” he noted as he provided background information about the report.  The initial study “produced major improvements to our nation’s weather observing system and to the NWS structure.”  Gail provided an overview of today’s challenges faced by the NWS including keeping pace with scientific and technological advances in atmospheric and hydrological sciences, “meeting expanding and evolving user needs,” and partnering with entities that “rely on core NWS infrastructure and capabilities to provide customized services.”  Gail also provided recommendations regarding these challenges including that the NWS should ensure the quality of the datasets, dissemination and provisions of data services, and engage the development of a national strategy for research and operations.   The NWS should “broaden the scope of its post-event evaluations,” develop performance metrics and retrain service-hydrologist staff.  He also recommended that the NWS “broaden collaboration and cooperation with other parts of the weather, water, and climate enterprise.”

“The issues we must address to make progress are not simple.  The problems are interlinked.  For NOAA, the solutions require collaboration across many of its organizational elements.  Increasingly, NOAA must extend this collaboration to include the enterprise – public, academic, and commercial – as a whole.  As we seek ways to move forward, the leadership of our community, including those within NOAA should be encouraged to innovate and to bring forth new ideas for improving how we work,” stated Gail.    

A. Thomas Young, Chair of an independent review team examining NOAA and NASA weather satellite operations presented the results of his review of United States civil weather satellites.  “For more than four decades the United States has had a robust satellite program that provided the data to support our incredible weather forecasting system,” he stated as he cautioned that “we have come to take for granted this exceptional capability that has become a critical element of the fabric of our society.”  He noted that while the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES)-R “will serve our Nation well” that series is dependent on funding to maintain a schedule of operation.  As for the status of the polar orbiting system, he stated that it “is more precarious” as he cautioned that “currently our weather and severe storm forecasting capability is dependent upon satellites that are operating beyond their design life and a research and development satellite whose data is now used operationally.”  Regarding the Joint Polar-orbiting Satellite System, he stressed “there is an unacceptably high probability of a [data] gap… that could have a duration of months or years.”   

Barry Lee Myers, CEO of Accuweather, Inc. spoke about meteorology and weather forecasting as he described the partnerships between the government and private weather industry stating that “it is estimated today, that 95% of the weather information reaching business and industry, the media, and the public comes – not from the National Weather Service – but from AccuWeather and other members of America’s weather industry.” He added that “the National Weather Service has a specific role to play and America’s weather industry has a specific role to play” as he described how the government collects and disseminates data, provides forecast models, and prepares and makes warnings to the general public.  Weather companies, he stated, also develop methods for communicating forecasts and warnings.  Lastly, he advocated for support for the weather enterprise, special funding for NOAA and the NWS, and encouraged public-private partnerships.

Richard Hirn, General Counsel and Legislative Director for the National Weather Service Employees Organization spoke about the role that forecasters, hydrologists, technicians and other scientific and support personnel play in the weather forecasting process.  He described employee initiatives aimed at improving communication with emergency management and outlined pilot projects at the NWS.  He discussed the National Research Council MAR Assessment and a National Academy of Public Administration report as he provided information about actions at the NWS during and following major storms which occurred between 2008 and 2011. 

Lee Ohanian, Professor of Economics and Director of the Ettinger Family Program in Macroeconomic Research at the University of California, Los Angeles spoke about labor relations between the NWS and the National Weather Service Employees Organization and the economic impact of unions.    He offered suggestions for the development of joint goals and cooperation as he described actions that prevented organizational changes “involving the deployment of manpower or the organization of the NWS that would presumably have enhanced efficiency of the NWS.”  

The conversation following the testimony focused on improved technology use, climate disruption, global warming and extreme weather events.  Senators expressed concern at the status of the JPSS and for the Nation’s ability to accurately forecast weather events in the event of a data gap.  Forecasting accuracy in tight fiscal times and prioritizing funding for quality warning systems were also discussed.