FY20 Appropriations Bills: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Publication date

The House and Senate have advanced spending bills that would reject the administration’s proposed cuts to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s weather and climate research programs for fiscal year 2020, while ramping down funding for satellite acquisition.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s overall budget of $5.43 billion is set to remain steady in fiscal year 2020, with the House seeking a 1% increase and the Senate proposing a 2% cut in their respective spending bills for the agency.

Both bills would ramp down funding for satellite acquisition efforts, which are proceeding apace, and put the resources freed up toward other NOAA programs. Notably, the House proposes to significantly expand weather and climate research programs managed by the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research. The administration sought a steep cut for these programs, while the Senate proposes a marginal increase. This will be one of the many differences the chambers must reconcile before they finalize the legislation.

FY20 Budget Proposals: NOAA

The House and Senate Appropriations Committee reports on the bills provide additional funding and policy direction. Detailed figures for research, forecasting, and satellite programs are collected in the FYI Federal Science Budget Tracker.

Oceanic and Atmospheric Research

NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) funds a broad portfolio of in-house and extramural research on weather and climate modeling, coastal resilience, and ocean exploration, among other topics.

While the administration proposed to eliminate or sharply cut back NOAA’s various extramural research programs to focus on core capabilities tied to the agency’s mission of protecting life and property, the House instead seeks to expand OAR’s budget by 14% to $644 million and the Senate proposes a small increase.

FY20 Budget Proposals: NOAA OAR

Climate research. The House proposes to distribute the increase for OAR across NOAA’s labs and cooperative institutes, climate information services, and competitive grants programs. Citing the projected impacts of climate change detailed in the recent National Climate Assessment (NCA), the House report states that “these stark facts underscore the need for continued investment in climate research to inform policy decisions across every sector of American society.” Noting the administration had proposed to end “dedicated funding” for the NCA, the House directs NOAA to allocate $3 million for it, emphasizing that the assessment is “congressionally mandated and shall not be impeded.” It further specifies a $3 million increase for the Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessment program to expand geographic coverage of climate information tools for local decision makers and it “reminds” the agency that the program is meant to be “customer-focused rather than purely in the pursuit of science.”

Geoengineering. Both the House and Senate draw attention to a forthcoming National Academies study that will establish a research agenda and outline governance approaches for solar geoengineering. The Senate states it “looks forward to receiving the results of the National Academies study to inform future action,” while the House calls for better characterizing the risks of injecting reflective material into the upper atmosphere. The House report directs OAR to allocate $13 million to “observations, monitoring, and forecasting of stratospheric conditions and Earth’s radiation budget” including research to “improve the understanding of the impact of atmospheric aerosols on radiative forcing as well as on the formation of clouds, precipitation, and extreme weather.”

Earth Prediction Innovation Center. To address persistent challenges in translating research advances into operational weather forecasts, NOAA has proposed to crowdsource model code development through an Earth Prediction Innovation Center (EPIC). To support the effort, the administration proposed to increase the U.S. Weather Research Program budget from $17 million to $28 million. The Senate expresses support for the EPIC concept but only provides $22 million for the weather research program and stipulates that, before funds are allocated, NOAA must submit a five-year strategic plan that details an investment strategy and quantitative goals for forecast improvement. The House does not comment on EPIC, but its proposal exceeds the administration’s request by $9 million.

Research computing. The House proposes to increase the budget for acquiring supercomputing systems by 20% to $49 million and to nearly double funding for High Performance Computing Initiatives to $22 million. Of the latter amount, it directs NOAA to allocate at least $10 million to “transition to high performance computing on the cloud for its research needs.” Meanwhile, the Senate proposes level funding for supercomputer acquisition.

Ocean acidification. The House directs NOAA to raise the Integrated Ocean Acidification program budget from $12 million to $20 million and encourages the agency to work with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to launch a prize competition for research, monitoring, and mitigation strategies. The Senate proposes level funding for the program.

Unmanned systems. Both the Senate and House approve moving the Unmanned Aircraft Systems office and Autonomous Underwater Vehicle Demonstration Testbed out of OAR as part of the establishment of an unmanned systems program. Congress authorized the creation of a centralized program for unmanned systems through the Commercial Engagement Through Ocean Technology Act, which it passed late last year.

National Weather Service

The Senate proposes to keep the National Weather Service (NWS) budget flat at $1.16 billion while the House proposes a 4% boost. In justifying the increase, the House report states, “The committee reaffirms its commitment to the weather enterprise and the necessity of maintaining the mission of protecting life and property within the federal government. While the committee does not oppose the continued growth of the private weather industry, the increasing frequency and intensity of natural disasters epitomize the need for the public provision of this critical information.”

Observations. The Senate bill would provide a marginal increase to the current $245 million budget for NWS observing systems, while the House proposes a $6 million increase. Both propose to expand NOAA’s National Mesonet Program, which provides local and regional data that supplement federal weather observations. Currently funded at $19 million, the House directs NOAA to provide the program at least $22 million while the Senate specifies $20 million and directs it to increase coverage in “high-risk areas” and work with agencies such as the National Science Foundation to identify potential observing platforms in data-sparse regions.

Forecasting staff. In both reports, appropriators express concerns over ongoing staffing issues for weather forecast personnel, stating that NWS should fill vacancies “as expeditiously as possible.” The Senate also includes a warning in its report, calling the extended vacancies “unacceptable — particularly when the committee has provided more than adequate resources and direction to fill vacancies expeditiously for the past several fiscal years.” Separately, Senate appropriators state NWS should do more to fill vacancies at the National Water Center, directing it to transition staff there from other offices so the center can achieve full operational capability.

Weather and Climate Prediction Centers. Both the House and Senate reject the administration’s proposed consolidation of the Climate Prediction Center into the Weather Prediction Center at the National Centers for Environmental Prediction. The administration maintained such a move would “eliminate overlap between the ever-changing transition at the weather and climate scale domains to develop a more continuous suite of products,” while acknowledging that some climate prediction products would be curtailed under the proposed structure.

Hurricane and tsunami programs. The Senate report includes multiple directives for hurricane forecasting and tsunami warning programs. Among them, it directs NWS to expedite its Hurricane Forecast Improvement Project to reduce errors in track and intensity forecasts and to expand existing collaborations with academia to improve storm surge modeling. It also rejects proposed cuts to the tsunami warning program and directs NWS to detail its plans for disseminating tsunami warnings.

Satellite programs

An image of two large storm systems over North America on Oct. 11 from the GOES East geostationary satellite.

An image of two large storm systems over North America on Oct. 11 from the GOES East geostationary satellite.

(Image credit – NOAA)

The current $1.7 billion budget for the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS) would drop under the House and Senate bills by 12% and 10%, respectively, accepting most of the administration’s requested reduction. The decrease is largely due to planned ramp-downs of acquisition programs for next-generation geostationary and polar-orbiting satellites.

Weather satellites. Funding for the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) program would drop by a quarter under both House and Senate proposals to $304 million. NOAA has delayed the launch of the third satellite in the series after instrumentation issues were detected on GOES-17. Both bills also accept the proposal to establish a single budget line for the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) acquisition program, but they diverge on NOAA's broader request to restructure the NESDIS accounts as it prepares for a more disaggregated satellite architecture. The Senate encourages NOAA to re-submit the proposal after it “clearly articulates the benefits of the reorganization and how current levels of program visibility will be maintained.”

5G spectrum interference. Amid an interagency dispute over whether interference from 5G telecommunications technologies could degrade weather observations, Senate appropriators direct NOAA to assess how weather satellite instruments that rely on the 23.6–24 GHz band would be affected under an out-of-band emissions limit of -28 decibel watts. That limit is about ten times more stringent than the -20 decibel watts level advocated by the Federal Communications Commission. Acting NOAA Administrator Neil Jacobs told Congress this summer that FCC’s proposed level could set back weather forecasting accuracy by decades, but FCC disputes that claim.

Space weather monitoring. Funding for NOAA’s program to acquire follow-on capabilities for space weather monitoring would ramp up from $26 million to $39 million under the House proposal and to $69 million under the Senate proposal. Both also direct NOAA to prepare to place a coronagraph on the GOES-U satellite, and the Senate states it further expects the agency to proceed apace with the planned acquisition of a stand-alone space weather monitoring satellite to be placed at a Lagrange point.

Climate data. Both the House and Senate reject the proposed elimination of the Regional Climate Centers program, which provides locally tailored information on events such as droughts and floods, specifying they should receive at least $4 million. Senate appropriators also encourage NOAA to “fully support critical international partnerships, including the Global Climate Observing System,” which assists organizations such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Commercial weather data. Both the House and Senate accept NOAA’s request for $3 million to continue the Commercial Weather Data Pilot program and $5 million to purchase commercial radio occultation data for operational use. NOAA has been assessing the feasibility of ingesting commercial data into its weather forecasts for several years, and the administration plans to ramp up the budget request for data purchases in future years.

Other items

Office of Education. Both the House and Senate reject the administration’s proposal to eliminate all major programs in NOAA’s Office of Education, which supports STEM education at minority-serving institutions, environmental literacy, and scholarships. The Senate proposes flat funding of $29 million, while the House proposes a $6 million increase on the grounds that “changing climate and increasing degradation of our environment will necessitate greater future investments in these scientific fields and their corresponding workforces.”

Sexual harassment. The House directs NOAA to allocate at least $1 million for continuing risk reduction and victim counseling efforts, stating it is “highly concerned by the threat of sexual assault and sexual harassment faced by individuals in the workplace, especially those in non-traditional work settings such as NOAA research vessels or private fishing vessels.” The Senate also specifies $1 million for sexual harassment prevention activities and commends NOAA for establishing a program dedicated to the subject. NOAA's harassment prevention policies had previously attracted congressional scrutiny after two individuals reported being sexually harassed on research vessels run by the agency.

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