Save lives with better forecasts

Residents in Moore, Okla.; Joplin, Mo.; and Tuscaloosa, Ala., know all too well the danger of fast-moving severe weather. In each of these towns, families lost loved ones, homes were destroyed and businesses were leveled when tornadoes tore through them.

The Midwest is not the only region to suffer from violent storms; the Eastern Seaboard continues to recover from the devastation caused by Superstorm Sandy. As severe weather events grow more destructive, accurate weather forecasting becomes increasingly important.

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The United States has long been the world leader in weather forecasting, but our leadership has been slipping. In recent years European forecasters have surpassed us by using more powerful computers and by more effectively harnessing research to expand the accuracy of their forecasts.

H.R. 2413, the Weather Forecasting Improvement Act of 2014, seeks to restore the U.S. to global leadership in weather forecasting. The House bill is a product of multiple hearings. I worked extensively with Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), the original sponsor of the bill, and Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah), the former chairman of the Science Committee’s Environment subcommittee, to produce a strong bipartisan bill that passed the House on a bipartisan voice vote. Now I urge the Senate to take up this bill.

H.R. 2413 builds on important insights from the National Research Council and the National Academy of Public Administration to inspire changes to the culture at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The bill puts in place several initiatives designed to bridge and integrate stronger communications among the researchers at the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR), the forecasters at the National Weather Service (NWS), and the National Center for Environment Prediction (NCEP). It also calls for better integration of the operational needs of NWS into research investment decisions by OAR, a change that’s necessary if we are to leverage scarce resources and maximize the impact of our forecasting capabilities. 

Additionally the bill sets up an interagency process to coordinate research and forecasting improvements across federal agencies. In addition to NOAA, our military services and the Federal Aviation Administration conduct significant weather research. The Weather Forecasting Improvement Act proposes a more rigorous effort for greater coordination led by the Office of Science and Technology Policy at the White House. This should speed up distribution of forecasting improvements while rationalizing research investment across agencies — and eliminating costly duplication.

Expanding forecasting skills must also be accompanied by assuring that we effectively and convincingly communicate risk to the residents of cities and towns in the path of severe storms. The bill contains provisions to improve our communications based on social science research. And as we add drought and wildfire to the list of natural events that transform huge swaths of our country by destroying crops, laying waste to wide areas of forests, and displacing families and communities, we can say with certainty that we need a weather forecasting capacity that is “second to none.”

One area with potential for growth is in public/private partnerships between NOAA and commercial satellite companies.

 H.R. 2413 addresses this issue by expanding opportunities for the commercial satellite and space weather sector, which can translate into more jobs, commercial investment and economic development for many communities. The bill requires the secretary of Commerce to deliver to Congress a strategy to enable the procurement of quality commercial weather data. The bill requires the secretary to assess the range and expected cost-effectiveness of commercial opportunities, including public-private partnerships, for obtaining both surface-based and space-based weather observations.

 Although the bill authorizes additional funds for weather research at NOAA, it does no harm to any other research programs at the agency. Frankly, more funding without the reforms represented in this bill would not likely deliver better weather forecasting or a safer public. With the changes included in this bill and a bit more budget flexibility, we can build a better weather enterprise anchored by a more effective NOAA, which will in turn prepare the United States for intense weather patterns projected to emerge in the coming decades. 

 The Weather Forecasting Improvement Act is an important step toward improving our capabilities and service to the public. I encourage the Senate to take up H.R. 2413. Together we can give our country a weather forecasting capability that is more accurate, helps prevent loss of life and property, and restores American leadership. Legislative time is short, but the stakes are great and the possibility of bipartisan agreement makes this a high priority.

 

Bonamici has represented Oregon’s 1st Congressional District since 2012. She sits on the Education and the Workforce Committee, and is ranking member of the Science, Space and Technology Committee’s Subcommittee on Environment.