“Weather forecasting is so vital and the work that you're doing in ocean mapping and exploration is absolutely essential. And we'll do our very best to protect you” said House Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Culberson (R-TX) at the start of last week’s hearing on the FY 2016 request for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan was well received by Culberson, Ranking Member Chaka Fattah (D-PA) and the other appropriators. She appeared before the subcommittee to answer questions about NOAA’s request of $5,982.6 million for FY 2016, an increase of $533.7 million or 9.8 percent over its current budget.
As he has demonstrated at other hearings, Culberson is a strong supporter of science, and his comments at this hearing indicated considerable enthusiasm for NOAA’s programs. Culberson spoke of this support early in the hearing, but as he has with other administration officials at previous hearings, said that was “an extremely difficult budget year.” Expanding this remark, Culberson emphasized the subcommittee’s bipartisan approach under its now-retired chairman, Frank Wolf (R-VA), declaring:
“We'll certainly do our best to be sure that the top priorities of NOAA are funded, but . . . I want to make sure it's clear for the record, as with every one of our witnesses, that we're facing a very difficult budget environment and many of the assumptions that the president makes in his [FY 2016 overall] budget are not going to happen such as tax increases and fee increases, et cetera. These are just simply not realistic but we will, of course, do everything we can to protect the important work that NOAA is doing. Weather forecasting is so vital and the work that you're doing in ocean mapping and exploration is absolutely essential. And we'll do our very best to protect you.”
Importantly, Culberson reiterated a point he has made in other hearings:
“And the work that we do has always been bipartisan in nature. This subcommittee's devotion and support for the sciences and scientific research, space exploration, weather forecasting and law enforcement is a long tradition [for] the subcommittee – [it has]been a privilege for me to be a part of it. Since I first got on the Appropriations Committee and particularly to succeed my mentor and dear good friend, Frank Wolf, who we all have great memories of and I'll do my best every day . . . .to live up to the high standard Frank Wolf set.”
As expected, there was discussion in Sullivan’s opening remarks and in later questions from the appropriators about NOAA’s weather satellite program. Sullivan highlighted the budget request for the development of the Polar Follow On in her statement, saying it would “reduce the potential for a gap in these critical observing systems and enhance our ability to provide timely and accurate weather forecasts now and into the future.” She also spoke of the investments the Obama Administration proposes in the National Weather Service to ensure that it is “second to none” with enhancements to geographic accuracy for forecasts, and increasing precipitation and temperature outlook in the three to four-week range.
Culberson asked Sullivan about actions NOAA has taken to reduce a potential gap in satellite weather data, and if it was possible to move up the launch date of the Joint Polar Satellite System-1. Sullivan described efforts to protect and extend the design lifespan of the existing satellite. The agency has worked with vendors to compress the construction schedule for the replacement craft, improved data assimilation, and is assessing temporary data sources in an effort to mitigate the loss of weather data. Sullivan at first would not offer an estimate of the length of a data gap, saying “that’s all going to be statistics.” When Culberson asked her again for “your best personal estimate” Sullivan responded “depending how you call the statistics, you could say it's 12 to 14 or 18 months. Then there are more cautious or worried people who would say it could be 36 or 48 months. It entirely depends on what probability . . . if you want to tell me I want a 90 percent probability or 80 or a 40 or a 30, that gap length will vary significantly. So it's a pretty random exercise to try to pick a gap length.”
The launch of the next satellite is scheduled for early 2017. In answer to Culberson’s question if there was anything that could be done to shorten this time, Sullivan replied “we have turned over every rock” and asked the contractors point blank if additional money would help. She continued, “They don't have the wherewithal to stand up separate parallel lines. . . . The important thing to do in our view is to move out with this budget and establish the Polar Follow-on program because it is breaking out of this one-at-a-time procurement cycle and moving towards a more economically effective multiple satellite purchase that will prevent us from kicking this gap further down the road and having the same problem at JPSS-2 and ever thereafter.” NOAA has requested $380 million for this Follow On program in the FY 2016 budget.
Culberson and Ranking Member Fattah appeared to accept Sullivan’s explanation. There was additional discussion about tsunami warning systems, significant improvements in weather forecast capability, NOAA’s Regional Coastal Resilience Grants program, hurricane observation with unmanned aircraft, tornado forecasting, efforts to increase the robustness of future satellite systems, new earth observing instruments, the importance of a new oceanographic vessel, and the economic importance of data supplied by NOAA.
The hearing concluded with Culberson asking Sullivan about her opening statement in which she declared: “this budget proposes to equip communities to face increasingly frequent natural disasters and confront the long term adverse environmental changes they're seeing. 2014 was the warmest year on record with eight weather and climate disasters, each of which had losses totaling $1 billion.” Sullivan responded that she would supply the subcommittee with data on the global atmospheric (temperature) average. Culberson replied, “I'm keenly interested in following up on that because [as] Mr. Jolly [R-FL] pointed out, we just want to make sure we get accurate data. And I was alarmed to see that there was - there's in a lot of instances, documentation that estimates that weather data has been estimated or extrapolated and averaged up. I just want to make sure we've got accurate data to make good decisions.”
Note: selections are from a transcript prepared by and used with the permission of CQ Roll Call.