Donald Trump

Does the White House Back Better Hurricane Forecasting? The Signs Point Both Ways

As hurricane season begins, and scientists predict the Atlantic Ocean could see another above-normal year, the White House is sending contradictory messages about whether it supports funding for better weather forecasting.

On the one hand, President Donald Trump in April signed a bipartisan Congressional bill that protects improvements to hurricane forecasting and tsunami warnings from budget cuts.

On the other, the president's proposed budget for 2018 fiscal year, released in May, would slash funding for those very programs, operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and its National Weather Service. NOAA accounts for much of the 16 percent reduction to the Commerce Department, of which it is a part.

"This budget would ensure that (NOAA's National Weather Service) becomes a 2nd or 3rd tier weather forecasting enterprise, frozen in the early 2000's," said David W. Titley, a retired rear admiral who oversaw the satellite and weather programs at NOAA and is now a meteorology professor at Penn State School of International Affairs. "This budget is the opposite of making America great:  It will make us more vulnerable and less prepared to face extreme weather in a changing and never-experienced climate."

The bill signed by Trump, the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act, requires that NOAA protect its Hurricane Forecast Improvement Program, establish a plan to improve tornado warnings and develop meteorological forecasts for varying time frames, from two weeks to up to two years. 

But the proposed budget, in the broadest terms, halts NOAA's cutting edge work, such as trying to extend weather predictions beyond 14 days, and makes large cuts in its tsunami warning system, its climate research and its efforts to develop and test unmanned aircraft and undersea vehicles, among other areas, Titley said.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the second ranking Republican in the Senate, in May called Trump's budget proposal "dead on arrival." Such proposals are more statements of priorities than legislation, he said, and both Republicans and Democrats criticized the cuts as too steep and questioned the accounting.

But if the budget has little chance of passing Congress, it does indicate the White House's priorities.

Rick Spinrad, a former chief scientist for NOAA, said that the cuts to research in particular would virtually guarantee that the United States would see little or no progress in the ability to improve forecasts of hurricanes' intensity or tracks.

"If we are satisfied that the current forecast capabilities are adequate, and that we are willing to accept the consequent losses of lives and property, then these cuts will be without consequence," Spinrad said. "More realistically, of course, without the needed improvements in observational systems, research on hurricane physics, and investment in high performance computing we will continue to see coastal communities and businesses suffer devastating losses."

Another former NOAA scientist, Scott Weaver, who is now a senior climate scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, said Trump's budget disregards science and its ability to protect lives and property.

One example: a $5 million cut to programs for more reliable weather and storm forecasts through advanced modeling. It would slow the transition from models to real-life warning systems, hurting families and business owners preparing for severe storms, Weaver said. 

"Weather is essentially bi-partisan," Weaver said. "Improving weather forecasts, there's really broad agreement that that's something that no matter what political background you come from is important and necessary. So that is why this budget is so striking in that context — because it's just so outside the bounds, it's unbelievable."

The United States has lagged in accurate weather forecasting — the European model, for example, predicted Hurricane Sandy's trajectory correctly while the America model put it out to sea — and the cuts would derail U.S. efforts to catch up, Weaver said. 

In response to the criticism, the White House Office of Management and Budget countered that the budget was consistent with the intent of the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act and recognized the value of accurate and reliable weather forecasts to American businesses and communities.

"That is why the 2018 budget preserves the proper and appropriate weather forecasting capabilities for the National Weather Service (NWS)," it said in a statement. "This includes continued support for the current generation of weather satellites that provide critical data to weather models and targeted increases in funding for the systems NWS personnel rely on to produce and disseminate forecasts to the public."

Weaver said, however, that although the budget for maintaining the adminstration's current satellites increases slightly, the Trump administration will review the programs for 2019 and beyond.

"And so basically what that's saying is that in the later years, we're not going to be interested in developing any new satellite missions to replace our aging satellite infrastructure," he said.

The budget and the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act appear to be in agreement on the satellite programs. The act requires NOAA to consider buying commercially provided weather satellite data rather than launching government satellites.

One of Florida's U.S. senators, Democrat Bill Nelson has sought backups for NOAA's fleet of aircraft designed to fly in and around hurricanes. The Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act does require NOAA to have a reliable alternative but the budget does not fund it.

"The administration's budget is literally betting the house on there not being a big storm this year," Nelson said. "By cutting money to improve hurricane forecasting and failing to invest in a backup for the hurricane hunters, it's a risky and reckless bet that could endanger lives and property."

Florida's second senator, Republican Marco Rubio, and the mayor of Miami-Dade County, Carlos Gimenez, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

For this year's hurricane season, which began on June 1 and continues through Nov. 30, forecasters from NOAA predict a 45 percent chance of an above-normal season, a 35 percent chance of a near-normal season and only a 20 percent chance of a below-normal season.

An average season produces 12 named storms, six of which become hurricanes, three of them major with winds of 111 miles per hour or higher, according to NOAA.

Forecasters this year predict a 70 percent chance of 11 to 17 storms powerful enough to be named. Five to nine could become hurricanes, and two to four of them major hurricanes.

"The outlook reflects our expectation of a weak or non-existent El Nino, near- or above-average sea-surface temperatures across the tropical Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea, and average or weaker-than-average vertical wind shear in that same region," Gerry Bell, the lead seasonal hurricane forecaster with NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, said in a statement.

How climate change is affecting hurricanes is still under study. In a report released in March, NOAA's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory said it was premature to conclude that human activities, and in particular the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming, have already had a detectable effect on Atlantic hurricane or global tropical cyclone activity.

But it also said human activities might have caused changes not yet detected, because they were too small or because of observational limitations or not yet modelled. 

Climate warming will likely cause hurricanes in the coming century to be more intense globally and to have higher rainfall rates than present-day hurricanes, it said.

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