WASHINGTON, Dec. 7, 2016 - Looming among the last-minute business for the adjourning 114th Congress is a bevy of investments and directives in atmospheric and climate science and communications aimed to keep Americans safer, help farmers and ranchers succeed, broaden participation in weather forecasting, and make agencies studying weather and climate cooperate more effectively.

“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.” Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune, R-S.D., declared when the Senate had amended and passed the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2016 unanimously last week. The House passed the bill earlier, and a staffer for a House Science Committee member says the panel is asking leadership to approve the Senate’s amended version and send it to the president before adjournment this week. Note that few actions are sure bets when lawmakers are rushing for the exits.

The bill aims at reforms. Although just weeks ago the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) successfully launched GOES-R, its first of a new class of very high-powered, technologically advanced weather satellites, the legislation presses NOAA to rein in its serious cost-overruns and stay on schedule with its research and development programs.

Congress is also trying to expand ground-level participation. For example, it will require at least one employee at each of the National Weather Service’s 122 forecasting sites be assigned as the “warning coordination meteorologist,” who must work with other NWS offices, “local officials, media, and other channels to maximize the usefulness and effectiveness of emergency communications” and ensure that the public is fully informed.

The bill also aims to bring private weather and climate experts’ contributions into NOAA’s work. It urges that at least 30 percent of the funds authorized for research and development be made available to private parties “through competitive grants, contracts, and cooperative agreements.”

Also, note that NOAA has already tiptoed into one of this legislation’s directives. The bill directs the agency “to enter into a pilot program contract to evaluate the private sector’s capabilities in providing space-based weather data.” But in September, it issued its first two contracts, totaling about $1 million, through its new Commercial Weather Data Pilot to two companies, GeoOptics and Spire Global, to furnish satellite data for NOAA forecasting. The legislation ensures that such NOAA efforts continue.

For purposes of helping farmers and ranchers, Elwynn Taylor, veteran meteorologist and extension climatologist at Iowa State University, says two areas of advancement are most important. First is the launch and proper use of the new sophisticated satellites to monitor and report detailed local climate conditions such as topsoil moisture and drought stress on plants, along with the expected sophisticated weather forecasting data.

Second is increased attention and expertise focused on local climate conditions and forecasts on a seasonal basis. The legislation, according to the Senate’s summary, presses NOAA, for example, to increase its capabilities for “long-range forecasts for time periods between two weeks and two years to allow farmers to make more informed decisions about when and what to plant.”

While predicting short-term severe weather events is important for farmers, Taylor said, agriculture producers also need the longer outlooks on seasonal climate conditions and year-to-year trends to make good crop and livestock management decisions. He especially supports the regional Climate Hubs that USDA set up two years ago to coordinate weather and climate monitoring and research among its Agriculture Research Service, Forest Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Cooperative Extension, plus NOAA, the Department of Interior, land grant universities and others.

Taylor wants to see resources the bill adds at NOAA supporting such collaborative climate research and monitoring. “I think they’re our hope. Because they will work on not just what is happening but on what is likely to happen, so that we can get some sort of a [seasonal] forecast,” he says.


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