HALL: Favoring climate over weather

Obama’s spending priority jeopardizes early warning of severe storms

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On April 3, several tornadoes ripped through the Dallas-Fort Worth area. While we were all very lucky there were no fatalities, hundreds of homes sustained major damage. The incident serves as yet another reminder about the importance of accurate and timely severe-storm forecasts.

The day before the tornadoes hit, President Obama delivered a speech accusing the House Republican budget of, among other things, leading to degraded storm warnings. “Over time, our weather forecasts would become less accurate because we wouldn’t be able to afford to launch new satellites,” the president said. “And that means governors and mayors would have to wait longer to order evacuations in the event of a hurricane.” This very serious charge is misleading at best and warrants additional context to set the record straight.

First, the satellite launch delays the president referenced are not being driven by the Republican budget, but rather an embarrassing combination of cost overruns, poor management and technical problems. Those satellite procurement issues, common among multibillion-dollar government projects, have plagued multiple administrations dating back to the 1990s, and the president’s own budget states that a satellite data gap will occur even if his request is fully funded.

Second, it is important to note that while the satellite system to which the president refers is a key component of two- to five-day forecasts, significant increases in warning times for tornadoes must come from better models, advanced radar technology and more measurements from ground-based and aerial sensors that directly measure things such as wind speed, direction, temperature and moisture. These relatively inexpensive earthbound observing and computing systems provide the most vital information for severe-storm forecasting and are, unfortunately, the types of systems for which Mr. Obama proposes to cut funding.

Last and perhaps most troubling is the administration’s continued inappropriate prioritization of climate over weather. The research arm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is requesting $212 million for climate research - a $28 million increase above 2012 - while holding weather and air-quality research flat. Simply diverting the president’s requested increase for climate-research funding to Earth-based weather-forecasting systems could greatly aid the economy and save lives and property by improving severe-storm predictions.

Adding insult to injury, the administration continues to resist undertaking objective, quantitative analyses to determine the relative value of different observing systems in improving severe storm forecasts and warning times, choosing instead to rely upon the opinions of subject matter experts divorced from fiscal realities and program managers wedded to certain systems. This exacerbates NOAA’s already misguided prioritization process, impedes our ability to determine how to get the greatest forecasting bang for the taxpayer buck and leaves the nation in the dark with respect to potential opportunities to alleviate the impacts of the forthcoming satellite coverage gap.

The April 3 event in Texas is a stark reminder of the necessity to focus limited taxpayer resources in the highest leverage areas. The president’s budget priorities put the country on a path toward focusing more resources on researching the climate at the expense of weather forecasting. As chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, which oversees NOAA’s budget, I intend to ensure that the president’s rhetoric on weather forecasting does not mislead Americans and that Congress rejects his budget proposal and instead focuses on the very real and inevitable threat of severe storms like those that tore through northeastern Texas.

Rep. Ralph M. Hall, Texas Republican, is chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

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