At full committee markups held on May 20 and June 25, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation approved two bills that aim to improve weather research, satellites, and services, at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in collaboration with the broader national weather enterprise. The two bills - S. 1331, the “Seasonal Forecasting Improvement Act of 2015,” which is co-sponsored by Committee Chairman John Thune (R-SD) and Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI), and S. 1573, the “National Weather Service Improvement Act of 2015,” also sponsored by Senators Thune and Schatz - were approved in committee by bipartisan voice votes and without debate or controversy.
S. 1331 would call on NOAA to collect and utilize information in order to make forecasts of seasonal phenomena, including seasonal information related to drought, tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, heatwaves, other natural disasters, snowpack, and sea ice. NOAA would be responsible for establishing an online clearinghouse to provide seasonal forecasts and products to the public. In addition, it would place a forecast communication coordinator in each state in order to receive and disseminate seasonal forecasts and information throughout each respective state. In another section, S. 1331 would reauthorize the U.S. Weather Research Program with a renewed focus on collaboration and planning between the research and operations branches of NOAA. Turning its focus to satellites, S. 1331 would attempt to maximize the value of and limit the costs of any future phase of the Joint Polar Satellite System or Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite series, and it orders the NOAA Administrator to follow through on plans for two microsatellite constellations, in both equatorial and polar orbits, that utilize radio occultation technology. (NOAA’s current COSMIC-2 satellite program has proposed to do the same.) In yet another section, the bill would establish a U.S. Committee on Weather Policy to assess weather forecasts and provide advice to Congress on matters relating to the highest priority weather forecast needs of the forecast user community.
S. 1573 would require the National Weather Service (NWS) to employ at least one warning coordination meteorologist at each weather forecast office of the NWS. The job of the warning coordination meteorologist would be to serve as a liaison with local and regional users of NWS products and weather information, to ensure that products are meeting user needs and reaching potential in improving public response and other outcomes to weather events. The bill would encourage NOAA to co-locate the warning coordination meteorologists with local and state emergency managers. In another section, S. 1573 would call on NOAA to conduct a review of the national weather watch and warning system in order to improve risk communication of hazardous weather and water events.
Before the committee approved the “Seasonal Forecasting Improvement Act of 2015,” Chairman Thune gave it his seal of approval: “I want to thank Senator Schatz for working with me on Senate Bill 1331, the Seasonal Forecasting Improvement Act. This bill, which builds on the committee’s hearing last month, will encourage the development of useable, reliable, and timely seasonal forecasts. These forecasts would allow a variety of users, including farmers and ranchers, to make better informed business decisions. The bill would also speed the pace of moving research into operations at NOAA and provide critical improvements to NOAA’s satellite governance.”
The House also recently approved a different weather bill, on which is has been working for over two years: H.R. 1561, the “Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2015.” H.R. 1561 focuses on streamlining research into operations at NOAA and on opening up a new commercial data industry to provide more observational data to assimilate into NOAA’s global and regional weather models. Because there are substantial differences between the House weather bill and the Senate weather bills they would need to be reconciled. The final version would need to be approved by both the full House and Senate before going to the President to be signed into law.