New U.S. Commission Would Try to Improve Weather Forecasting

Scientific American

UCAR president Thomas Bogdan leads the movement to form a U.S. Weather Commission. Photo by Carlye Calvin

Despite the ever-present caveat that predicting the weather is a difficult and inexact science, it seems that forecasts have been getting better and better. Yet some leaders in meteorology say continued improvement is not guaranteed and could even be jeopardized by federal spending cuts. They want Congress to fund a high-level, national commission that would ensure that ongoing research is pursued to protect the nation against weather threats.

As recent storms have demonstrated, individuals, towns, industries such as agriculture and the U.S. economy itself are always vulnerable to bad weather, from hurricanes to droughts. Advanced technologies have made forecasting more accurate and have provided earlier warnings of impending storms, yet room for enhancement still exists. Furthermore, proponents of the commission say Congress might not be willing to fund as much weather research as it has in the past, so the meteorological community needs an overarching voice. The proposed U.S. Weather Commission would advise policy makers on how to get the maximum benefit from the nation's weather research and technology, in the most cost-effective manner.

The crusade for a commission is being led by Thomas Bogdan, president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, a nonprofit consortium of research universities based in Boulder, Colo., that serves the atmospheric science community. Earlier this year, he and others formed The Weather Coalition to explore the idea. They were inspired in part by a National Academy of Sciences report released in early 2012, "Weather Services for the Nation: Becoming Second to None," which concluded that despite progress, the U.S. is still not harnessing the best science and commercial services to protect against weather. According to the coalition's documents, the U.S. Weather Commission would provide guidance to Congress and others "on issues such as making appropriate investments in satellite and radar systems, protecting vulnerable communities, setting research priorities and meeting the needs of key sectors, ranging from agriculture to utilities to the U.S. armed forces."

In September, Bogdan and his colleagues briefed congressional staffers on the idea of forming a commission. The staffers seemed intrigued but wanted to know the opinions of academic researchers as well as commercial weather services, so the coalition set up a Web site where people could comment. A number of individuals have since written in support, but some skeptics worry that a new commission might dilute the influence of existing meteorological groups. One critic notes that previous presidential and congressional commissions ended up producing reports that no one in government listened to.

Alternatively, Paul Higgins of the American Meteorological Society writes that a commission could better serve the public if it addressed not just weather but also water and climate, and it could even have a broader outlook, such as a commission on Earth observations.

A few leaders of meteorological research groups also raised questions at a reception that the coalition held last week, which I attended, during the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco. They seemed concerned that a new commission might undercut their own efforts to direct research or obtain funding, or that it could add an unneeded level of bureaucracy in working with one another and with Congress.

Bodgan's response to me in an interview the next day was that a commission would actually help promote a research agenda and secure funds. "There's a real potential that [federal] support for weather services could decline," he said, adding that the U.S. weather research community is fractured into many entities that do not effectively interact with the Federal government. He also noted that the weather research community itself has acknowledged that better coordination of work could improve mid-range forecasts, which are generally done better by the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts. For example, when Hurricane Sandy was moving up the U.S. East Coast, it was the so-called European hurricane model that predicted the storm would turn west into New Jersey instead of going out to sea, which various U.S. models predicted.

Bogdan also noted that "high-level people" in federal agencies have told him that they support the commission idea, including those from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA, the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy. Now that the coalition has received public comments, it will go back to congressional staffers in January and ask them to encourage a set of representatives or senators to draft legislation that would form and fund a commission. Bogdan recommends that the commission be funded for 18 months--long enough to do the work needed to advise Congress, yet short enough to ensure that the work will proceed in a timely manner.

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