After stumbling blocks and delays, sweeping bipartisan legislation to improve weather forecasting has passed the Senate.
The 65-page bill, the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2017, H.R. 353, contains four sections that support research and programs to improve weather forecasting and its communication on short and long time scales.
Containing scores of provisions, the bill would require the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to, for example:
- Establish a program to improve tornado warnings.
- Protect the Hurricane Forecast Improvement Program, whose funding was previously slashed.
- Develop a formal plan for weather research.
- Develop an annual report on the state of its weather models.
- Develop forecasts on the subseasonal (two weeks to three months), seasonal (three months to one year) and interannual (up to two years) time scales.
- Consider options to buy commercially provided weather satellite data rather than launch expensive government satellites.
- Improve its watch-and-warning system based on recommendations from social and behavioral scientists.
The bill authorizes funding for these initiatives, totaling more than $170 million, but does not necessarily signal new or increased funding for NOAA. Rather it offers guidance on what programs should receive specific funding amounts given the existing budget negotiated by the president and Congress. …
The revised legislation, after a new round of negotiations, adds two significant provisions. One is a requirement for the National Weather Service to study gaps in radar coverage across the country.
The study was advocated by Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who has long pushed for a dedicated radar site in Charlotte, along with the area’s meteorologists.
“No other city of Charlotte’s size currently has a radar situated more than 58 miles away,” Brad Panovich, chief meteorologist for the NBC affiliate serving Charlotte, wrote in a blog post in September 2015. “This has become a very dangerous situation in my opinion.”
Previously, bipartisan legislation requiring the Weather Service to install radar in cities the size of Charlotte was introduced but never passed.
The second new provision in the bill requires NOAA to acquire backup for hurricane hunter aircraft.
“[W]hile the hurricane season seems to be getting longer, the NOAA plane is getting older,” said Nelson, who championed the provision. “We must have a reliable backup. And I am pleased today that the Senate has unanimously passed this measure as part of a broader weather bill.”
Longtime weather industry lobbyist Tom Fahy from Capitol Meteorologics said the bill brought out the best in bipartisan cooperation. “Improving our weather infrastructure strengthens not only the diverse sectors of our economy but the entire country,” he said.
Senators from both sides of the political aisle cheered the bill’s passage.
“From long-term forecasting that can prevent costly agricultural losses to more actionable information about severe weather, this legislation will help save lives and reduce avoidable property loss,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said.
“Our bill strengthens the science to forecast severe heat and cold, storms, tornadoes, tsunamis and hurricanes, helping us make our warnings more timely and accurate,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said. “It also improves how the government communicates these threats to the public, so that families and businesses can be prepared and stay safe.”
The bill also has gained broad support from the weather enterprise’s private and academic sectors, including AccuWeather, GeoOptics, Panasonic Avionics, Schneider Electric, Vaisala, the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research and the University of Oklahoma.
The weather radar gap issue is pertinent, because I seem to have the habit of living in radar gaps, or at least NWS office gaps. If you live in Fond du Lac County, you are on the borderline of the NWS Ashwaubenon office and the NWS Sullivan office. Even worse, if you live in Grant County, you are on the borderline of Sullivan, the NWS office in La Crosse, and the NWS office in the Quad Cities of Illinois and Iowa. Each of those has weather radars.
Weather radar sends its signal by line of sight — straight out from the radar dish. Of course, Earth is not flat, so the farther you are from the radar the less accurate the radar is for where you are, or equally as important the direction your weather is coming from, generally west-ish. I found out at a severe weather spotter training session late last month that weather radars don’t tell you much about what’s happening below 6,000 feet anyway.
There used to be NWS offices in Dubuque, Madison and Milwaukee. The latter two were combined into the Sullivan office, and the Dubuque office (which was part-time its last 13 years, which I can attest from experience is most unhelpful during nighttime severe weather) was closed in 1995 and merged into the Quad Cities office. Weather warnings previously given from Madison were assigned to (a college classmate of mine at) the NWS La Crosse office.
Today, by the way, is the statewide tornado drill, with a fake tornado watch at 1 p.m. and two tornado warnings thereafter. Because Mother Nature loves irony, this state’s first severe weather of the year was in early March. There have been some horrible severe weather outbreaks this month, including the 1956 Berlin tornado (seven killed) …
… the 1965 Palm Sunday tornadoes (three killed near Watertown) …
… and the 1974 Super Outbreak, currently the worst in U.S. history in terms of violent tornadoes.