House advances legislation to improve severe weather forecasting

By Derrick Cain

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WASHINGTON, April 2, 2014 - The House approved by voice vote Tuesday legislation (H.R. 2413) that aims to improve the nation's severe weather forecasting abilities.

The vote came about 10 days after the House Science, Space and Technology Committee favorably reported out the bill, which was offered by Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., with 20 cosponsors.

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The Weather Forecasting Improvement Act aims to improve the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) ability to protect lives and property through improved severe weather forecasting and prioritization of research and computing resources. 

“Millions of Americans, both in government and private industry, have dedicated their careers and lives to the mission of providing their fellow citizens with accurate, timely weather forecasts, and the technology this bill advances will greatly assist their efforts,” Bridenstine said. “In particular, I have seen first-hand the capabilities of phased array radar in the American military, and I am certain that it will help lead America's weather forecasting efforts towards the goal of having zero preventable deaths occur as a result of a severe weather system like a tornado.”

 

The National Severe Storms Laboratory in Oklahoma has been using phased array radar, provided by the Navy, for weather research since 2003, with the hope that research will lead to increased warning times and enhanced prediction of tornadoes and thunderstorms.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates the legislation would cost $356 million over four years. CBO said NOAA would use those funds to purchase equipment, conduct research, establish advisory committees, and fund fellowship programs related to improving the agency's forecasting capabilities and warning systems. In 2013, the agency spent about $80 million to fund activities similar to activities authorized under H.R. 2413.

The bill would direct the NOAA's research and satellite offices and National Weather Service offices to develop a prioritized weather research plan with the aim of restoring U.S. world leadership in weather modeling, prediction, and forecasting. In order to address concerns that Europe and other regions have overtaken the U.S. with respect to computer modeling and operational forecasts, the bill would direct NOAA to develop prioritization plans to regain and maintain high impact weather forecasting capabilities.

The bill would create a tornado and hurricane warning extension program to develop and extend accurate forecasts to reduce loss of life, injury, and economic damage. It would clarify that NOAA is not prohibited from obtaining weather data through contracts with commercial providers, and would direct NOAA to prepare a report assessing the range of commercial opportunities for obtaining cost-effective space-based weather observations.

Bridenstine said NOAA's $2 billion satellite account has suffered from a variety of problems and delays, resulting in a potential gap in weather satellite coverage and the need to systematically evaluate the combination of observing systems, both public and private, necessary to meet weather data requirements.

A Bridenstine aide said their office and committee staff have held preliminary discussions with potential sponsors in the Senate.

Brad Rippey, USDA meteorologist, said farmers and producers clearly would benefit from improvements in forecasting short and mid-term weather events. “However, there is only so much you can do for a crop once it's in the ground … You can't put your corn crop in a storm cellar.”

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