First Comprehensive Weather Policy Update Since 1992 Now Law

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Publication date: 
21 April 2017
Number: 
48

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has new congressional guidance for its weather research, forecasting, and observations programs, including authorizations for a new seasonal forecasting program, a greater focus on research-to-operations, and improved coordination across the U.S. weather enterprise.

On April 18, President Trump signed the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act, capping a bipartisan, bicameral legislative effort that began in 2013 in the House Science Committee. Originally aimed at restoring U.S. leadership in weather forecasting and prioritizing research that improves weather forecasts, the effort expanded in scope and gained momentum over time while staying largely rooted in these goals.

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Tornado

The Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act creates a tornado warning improvement and extension program and maintains the existing Hurricane Forecast Improvement Program within NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research  (Image credit - NOAA)

Public domain

Following back-and-forth between the House and Senate last fall and this winter, Congress finally resolved remaining holds and outstanding issues and passed the bill on April 4, nearly four years after the first hearings on the legislation. It is widely viewed as the first comprehensive weather authorization since the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Authorization Act of 1992. In a statement issued following the president’s signature, House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) called the bill’s enactment “a major advance toward transforming our nation’s public-private weather enterprise.

The law’s first four titles authorize a mix of new and already existing weather research, forecasting, observations, communications, and coordination programs at NOAA and within the U.S. weather enterprise, while the fifth title incorporates Rep. Suzanne Bonamici’s (D-OR) Tsunami Warning, Education, and Research Act focusing on tsunami warning coordination, mitigation, and research.

The second title authored by Sen. John Thune (R-SD) establishes a pioneering National Weather Service program for delivering seasonal forecasts at scales from two weeks to two years – stretching beyond the current time frame of weather forecasts. The law also authorizes a $20 million “joint technology transfer initiative” between NOAA’s research and forecasting line offices and formally codifies a commercial weather data program at NOAA that is experimenting with incorporating private sources of satellite-based weather data into the nation’s weather forecasting system.

Focus on saving lives and property, restoring US leadership

The opening section of the law directs NOAA to “prioritize” research that improves “weather data, modeling, computing, forecasting, and warnings for the protection of life and property and for enhancement of the national economy.” Lead sponsor Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK) has frequently expressed consternation that the U.S. – and NOAA’s Global Forecast System in particular – is no longer considered by some experts to be the best weather prediction system in the world, calling that “unacceptable.”

In a statement following the law’s enactment, he again underscored these points:

This legislation packs in multiple efforts to protect lives and property from severe weather because Americans deserve nothing less than the most accurate and timely weather predictions. By encouraging new technologies both outside and inside of NOAA, we can put our country back on track to be a world leader in weather forecasting.

Fellow Oklahoma Republican Rep. Jim Bridenstine, who sponsored the first version of the weather bill in 2013, praised the law, saying it “moves us closer to a day when we have zero deaths from tornadoes and severe weather events.

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Weather bill sponsor photo collage

The leaders behind the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act include (from left to right) Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK), Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), and Sen. John Thune (R-SD). (Image credit – Congressional Pictorial Directory)

Lucas and Bridenstine authored a section of the bill that establishes a new tornado warning improvement and extension program in NOAA’s research office with the goal of developing and extending “accurate, effective, and timely tornado forecasts, predictions, and warnings, including the prediction of tornadoes beyond one hour in advance.” Oklahoma, which was hit by a spate of deadly tornadoes in 2013 and is particularly vulnerable to severe weather, is home to the National Weather Center and NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory, both co-located with the University of Oklahoma.

Bridenstine also spearheaded development of the bill’s extensive section on commercial weather data, which requires NOAA to pilot incorporating private sources of data into the National Weather Service’s operational weather models and forecasts. While leveraging commercial weather data was a new concept for NOAA when Bridenstine first proposed the idea, the agency has since taken major steps in that direction, including issuing an official Commercial Space Policy and launching a Commercial Weather Data Pilot project, both in 2016. Through congressional guidance in recent appropriations law, Bridenstine pushed successfully for NOAA and the U.S. Air Force to begin funding commercial weather data pilot projects.

Lead Senate sponsor John Thune (R-SD), who authored the seasonal forecasting title of the law, as well as sections on forecast and warning communications and decision support, emphasized the economic value of long-range environmental prediction to industry and other decision-makers in his statement on the enactment:

The results of this legislation will be better warning about extreme weather events and changes to long-term forecasting that give farmers better information about what and when to plant and local transportation departments more time to prepare for unusually harsh winters.

While Republican members of the Science Committee wrote the first versions of the House bill, those versions prompted pushback from Democrats, and the bill’s sponsors soon reached out in search of bipartisan cooperation and co-authorship. The final bill was fully bipartisan and passed with widespread support in both the Senate and House.

In a statement on the House floor just before the bill’s final passage, House Science Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) touted it as an example of how Congress can address issues such as “climate and weather [which] are not fundamentally partisan concerns” but which “affect all of our constituents, regardless of their party affiliation.

Lead Democratic sponsor Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), who has served as ranking member of the Environment Subcommittee since 2013, emphasized in her floor statement how the law will improve communications and coordination for weather prediction:

Even the best forecasts will not serve the public’s needs unless there are effective communication systems in place. [This bill] directs NOAA to do more research, listen to experts, and improve its risk communications techniques.

She also highlighted how the legislation aims to strengthen interagency coordination of weather issues through a new committee led by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and a tsunami research and warning title, which she authored. The law, she said, will help the Pacific Northwest understand and prepare for a potentially catastrophic seismic event along the Cascadia Subduction Zone off the Washington and Oregon coasts.

Weather community engaged with bill to varying degrees

NOAA did not take a formal position on the weather bill. Former NOAA Administrator Katherine Sullivan and other leaders in both the private and academic weather sectors testified before Congress that weather research is critical, although Sullivan cautioned it ought not be prioritized at NOAA at the expense of climate research, saying that weather and climate modeling are increasingly interconnected efforts. Improvements in weather forecasting, she and other witnesses argued, are increasingly dependent on a better understanding of climate. Sullivan also aired her concerns with the push for commercial weather data, asserting that weather data is best left as a public good available free for all.

The American Meteorological Society (AMS), an AIP Member Society, also stayed on the sidelines publicly, although the society worked with congressional staff to improve the bill. A key recurring theme in witness testimony before both the House and Senate over the years was the value of the U.S. weather enterprise that AMS represents, comprising three sectors – academic, private, and public. The bill’s authors were responsive to the message that the U.S. weather enterprise could benefit from improved coordination and communication across the sectors. Congress incorporated language in nearly every major section designed to ensure inputs from the academic and private sectors are considered alongside NOAA’s.

One private sector leader who testified multiple times before Congress on the bill, AccuWeather CEO Barry Myers, noted that the law for the first time statutorily brings together NOAA with the research community and the weather industry, calling it a “monumental piece of legislation.”

Antonio Busalacchi, president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, which was also active in the bill’s development, called it “landmark legislation” and said it “underscores enduring value of scientific research to our nation.

Major provisions

The major provisions of the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act are as follows:

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

  • Requires NOAA to prioritize research that improves weather data, modeling, computing, forecasting, and warnings “for the protection of life and property and for the enhancement of the national economy”;
  • Authorizes a comprehensive program of atmospheric research in NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR), and authorizes $111.5 million in fiscal years 2017 and 2018 to carry it out;
  • Directs NOAA to collaborate with and support the rest of the U.S. weather research community, including “institutions of higher education, private entities, and nongovernmental organizations”;
  • Provides non-binding guidance that at least 30 percent of weather R&D within OAR ought to be provided extramurally via competitive grants, contracts, and cooperative agreements;
  • Creates a “joint technology transfer initiative” within NOAA to ensure the continuous transition of S&T advances into operations at the National Weather Service (NWS), and authorizes an additional $20 million in fiscal years 2017 and 2018 for this purpose;
  • Establishes a Tornado Warning Improvement Program within OAR to reduce the loss of life and economic losses from tornadoes through forecasts and warnings, “including the prediction of tornadoes beyond 1 hour in advance”;
  • Maintains OAR’s existing Hurricane Forecast Improvement Program to extend hurricane forecasts and warnings;
  • Requires NOAA to issue two annual reports:
    • an R&D and research-to-operations plan “to restore and maintain U.S. leadership in numerical weather prediction and forecasting”; and
    • a report on how NOAA will prioritize its high performance computing technologies, capabilities, and resources “in support of its weather prediction mission”;
  • Requires NOAA to develop a prioritized list of key systems of observation data and conduct technical analyses to quantitatively assess the relative value of those observing systems;
  • Requires NOAA to conduct cost-benefit assessments prior to acquiring any observing systems with a lifecycle cost of more than $500 million;
  • Reauthorizes the U.S. Weather Research Program, which helps coordinate and promote multi-sectoral research efforts and transition them into operations.

Title II: Sub-seasonal and Seasonal Forecasting Innovation

  • Establishes a new seasonal forecasting program within the NWS to:
    • Provide sub-seasonal (two weeks to three months) and seasonal (three months to two years) temperature and precipitation forecasts; and
    • Provide information on how these forecasts may impact the frequency and severity of droughts, fires, tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, heat waves, coastal flooding, winter storms, and other high impact weather, snowpack, and sea ice;
  • Requires NOAA to launch an Internet clearinghouse to provide sub-seasonal and seasonal forecasts and information on national and regional levels;
  • Authorizes NOAA to foster effective communication, understanding, and use of sub-seasonal and seasonal forecasts, including assistance to the states via forecast communication coordinators.”

Title III: Weather Satellite and Data Innovation

  • Requires NOAA to complete the COSMIC-2 microsatellite system, including deployment of constellations in both the equatorial and polar orbits, and to integrate the resulting data into “all national operational and research weather forecast models”;
  • Calls on NOAA to integrate additional coastal and ocean observations from the Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS) into regional weather forecasts;
  • Commissions the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a study on future satellite data needs that will identify and assess unconventional approaches to remote Earth observing and recommend a balanced portfolio of environmental observation data from multiple sources;
  • Authorizes NOAA to enter into agreements to purchase weather data from private companies and place weather instruments on private satellites;
  • Requires NOAA to develop a “strategy to enable the procurement of quality commercial data” and enter into at least one contract with a private company for weather data, authorizing $6 million in fiscal years 2017 through 2020 for this purpose;
  • Requires NOAA within three years to assess the viability of commercial weather data for sustained use in NOAA’s operational weather models, and if found viable to obtain and incorporate commercial weather data “where appropriate, cost-effective, and feasible.

Title IV: Federal Weather Coordination

  • Defines the role of and charter for NOAA Science Advisory Board’s Environmental Information Services Working Group;
  • Establishes an Interagency Committee for Advancing Weather Services led by the White House Office of Science and Technology to improve coordination of relevant weather research and forecast innovation activities across the federal government;
  • Establishes a personnel exchange program at NOAA between the NWS and OAR to foster innovation through regular, direct interaction “between OAR’s world-class scientists and NWS’ operational staff”;
  • Authorizes NWS to establish a program to host postdoctoral fellows and academic researchers at the National Centers for Environmental Prediction to foster interaction between NOAA’s forecasters and researchers;
  • Directs NWS to designate at least one “warning coordination meteorologist” at each of its weather forecast offices to improve communication of forecasts, engagement with local and regional users, and regional decision support services;
  • Requires NOAA within two years to assess its system for issuing watches and warnings for hazardous weather and water events and provide a report with findings and recommendations for improving the systems;
  • Requires NOAA within two months to issue a report on the impacts of the proposed Air Force divestiture in weather research and modeling;
  • Requires NOAA to issue a report within six months on the use of contactors at the NWS;
  • Authorizes NOAA to “establish mechanisms for outreach” to the weather enterprise to assess forecasts, forecast products, and the forecast needs of the community;
  • Requires NOAA to establish a backup for the capabilities of its “Hurricane Hunter” aircraft that fly into tropical storms and deploy instrumentation that transmit data key to hurricane forecasts;
  • Requires NOAA to identify areas of the U.S. where there are currently gaps in radar coverage and provide recommendations on the additional observations necessary to ensure public safety.

Title V: Tsunami Warning, Education, and Research Act of 2017

  • Requires NOAA to maintain and support tsunami warning centers as part of the national tsunami warning system, and gives additional responsibilities to the centers, including maintaining “a fail-safe warning capability”;
  • Calls on NOAA to study and evaluate earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and landslides as potential events that could generate tsunami;
  • Requires NOAA to develop a rapid tsunami forecast capability and plan to mitigate the impact of tsunami for all U.S. coastlines, drawing on the Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis array, tsunami sensors on commercial and federal telecommunications cables, and other real-time tsunami monitoring;
  • Requires NOAA to establish the technical basis for validation of tsunami maps, models, and forecasts;
  • Requires NOAA to designate an existing working group to serve as its Tsunami Science and Technology Advisory Panel; and
  • Authorizes $25.8 million in funding for these programs for fiscal years 2016 through 2021.

About the author

mhenry [at] aip.org
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