July 15, 2013

A Revised Weather Improvement Act That Would Radically Improve U.S. Weather Prediction

As I noted in an earlier blog, the House Science Committee is now considering the Weather Forecasting Improvement Act of 2013.  There are some good things in this bill, some problems that need to be addressed, and several critical issues that are simply not considered.

I believe strongly that an an improved and revised bill could potentially greatly improve weather prediction in the U.S. and could be supported by both sides of the aisle.  In fact, I can think of few subjects that could more readily garner bipartisan support in Congress.

So let me go out on a limb and suggest the outline of a bill that could revolutionize U.S. weather prediction. 

The Bill's Central Goal

The current bill has a goal

"To prioritize and redirect NOAA resources to a focused program of investment on near-term, affordable, and attainable advances in observational, computing, and modeling capabilities to deliver substantial improvement in weather forecasting and prediction of high impact weather events, such as tornadoes and hurricanes, and for other purposes."

I agree with the bill's authors that that the balance between the resources available for weather forecasting and climate is out of whack (too little for weather forecasting), but the term "prioritize and redirect" has gotten the Democrats and climate folks nervous.  And the list of high impact events and phenomena is too limited.     NOAA is only part of the problem/solution, and the bill leaves out the crucial area of communication, dissemination, and application of forecasts.  A little wordsmithing and modification can fix these issues:

"To establish a focused program of investment on affordable and attainable advances in observations, computing, modeling, communication, and dissemination capabilities to deliver a substantial improvement in the quality and application of weather forecasting and prediction information in the United States, with an emphasis on high impact weather events, such as severe thunderstorms, floods, heat waves, hurricanes, snowstorms and windstorms.  NOAA and other Federal agencies are directed to insure that U.S. weather prediction and dissemination capabilities are state-of-the-science.

More balanced and something everyone can agree to.

 Solve the Number One Problem-- the Lack of Community Participation, Interaction and Feedback

The central reason that U.S. prediction capabilities lag others around the world and falls far short of our inherent capabilities is not the lack of big computers (although that hurts!).  The real problem has been the isolation of the National Weather Service from the nation's research and development community, as well as inadequate interactions with the private sector and users communities.  The U.S. has the largest weather research community and the most extensive private sector, yet the NWS has been really poor in tapping this expertise and taking advantage of the knowledge of those outside of NOAA.   A number of U.S. National Academy advisory committees has recommended the establishment of a  NWS Advisory Committee, but NWS management has stubbornly and counterproductively refused.   A not-invented here, we do not need to get advice from others, attitude has pervaded the National Weather Service and NOAA.

This bill could deal with these issues in two ways:

(1)  The establishment of a National Weather Service advisory committee comprised of experts in modeling, forecasting, communication, observations, and dissemination. This committee would encompass experts from the research community, private sector community, and others.  This would only require minimal funding.

(2)  The establishment of a higher level advisory group the encompasses the users and producers of weather information, as well as the research community.  One possible model for this is the proposed Weather Commission (proposed by the U.S. Weather Coalition, here).  This would be a congressionally mandated group, with basic support for meetings and reports.

A National Weather Research Program

The current bill sets up a fund for forecasting research and innovation, which is important and needed.  The NWS has not invested sufficiently in weather prediction research. But some of the bill details are problematic.  First, the identification of issues is too narrow, with great emphasis on tornadoes and hurricanes.  These are very important issues, but so is flooding, winter storms, wildfires, midlatitude cyclones, heat waves, droughts, transportation weather, and others.  The language needs to be broadened to encompass all important weather phenomena.

An important missing element of this bill is the lack of support for research and development regarding weather information communication and dissemination.  The recent House hearing underlined that some members of the Environment subcommittee did not appreciate the importance of social scientists and others examining the communication issue.  Let me be clear now:  creating good forecasts is only half the job...the easier one.  Creating products that clearly provide information and promote the correct response is just as important, and the NWS has not invested sufficient resources in this area.    Several people died during the El Reno tornado unnecessarily, because they decided to hit the roads when then tornado warning went out.

Second, the funding is provided to NOAA's Office of Atmospheric Research (OAR) for distribution.  This is a major deficiency.  A major part of the U.S. weather prediction problem is that the group doing operational numerical weather prediction (the National Weather Service, mainly the Environmental Modeling Center) does not control the group that is responsible for weather research (in NOAA OAR).    NOAA OAR does some good work (mainly on the Rapid Refresh forecasting system and data assimilation), but it also does all kinds of work that never gets into operations. Relations between NOAA OAR and NWS operational folks is often tense and inefficient. (A really good example of this is that last summer a very highly placed individual in OAR told me that I was wasting my time trying to get more powerful computers for the NWS...I should get them for his group, which would do quasi-operational weather prediction). Another issue is that funds given to NOAA OAR will tend to stay within NOAA and never reach the critical research community outside of NOAA (trust me, I know about this from experience!).

The bill can help with this.   The funds should  go to a new National Weather Research Program office in either the National Weather Service or NOAA, and the bill should be EXPLICIT that the bulk of the funds (say 60-70%) be directed to extramural funding outside of NOAA.  I can not  exaggerate the importance of this.  Furthermore, at least 20% of the funds should go for forecast dissemination and communication research and development.

The bill should be explicit that the NWS advisory committee be given a large role in deciding the priorities of this new funding, in concert with those responsible for operational weather prediction in the NWS.

Finally,  the bill goes overboard in micromanaging this research.  Don't call out a tornado research program or narrowly define the weather features of concern.  

Observing System Planning

This bill takes on a critical issue, finding a rational way to design the U.S. and global weather observing system.  It is outrageous that NOAA has spent billions of dollars on weather satellites and observing systems without using rational tools for deciding how to design the best observing system for the least amount of funding.   Duplicative and wasteful observing system acquisitions have been all too frequent, billions have been wasted on poor decisions regarding satellite systems, and extremely valuable, cost effective data sources (e.g., aircraft data from commuter planes, COSMIC-2 GPS satellite data) are not acquired.  A total mess and a severe indictment of NOAA management.

This section of the bill starts out well, asking NOAA to

1) develop and maintain a prioritized list of observation data requirements necessary to ensure weather forecasting capabilities to protect life and property to the maximum extent practicable;
(2) undertake ongoing systematic evaluations of the combination of observing systems, data, and information needed to meet the requirements developed under paragraph (1), assessing various options to maximize observational capabilities and their cost-effectiveness;
(3) identify current and potential future data gaps in observing capabilities related to the requirements under paragraph (1); and
(4) determine a range of options to address gaps identified under paragraph (3).

But then it goes into super micromanagement mode, calling for only one (of many) approaches to doing such an evaluation (OSSEs--Observing System Simulation Experiments).   Congress MUST hold NOAA's feet to the fire on this, considering the long-history on inaction, but the selection of tools must be left to the experts.  The key for this bill is to set the priorities, assign responsibilities and deadlines, and to provide the resources to get the job done. 

Computing Resources Prioritization Report

This section of the reports requests NOAA to provide a report describing how the U.S. will acquire and maintain the computer resources required for state-of-the-art weather prediction.  NOAA management has consistently allowed the U.S. to fall behind in numerical weather prediction computing and only pressure from Congress seems able to gain their attention to this issue.  But Congress must demonstrate its readiness to invest in necessary weather prediction computation and to allow the NWS to access the huge computer resources available for climate research and simulation.

Commercial Weather Data

Some members of this committee became enthusiastic about using more private sector weather data, particularly for satellite information.  This is partially driven by the relative incompetence of NOAA satellite acquisition and the intense lobbying of some private sector companies wanting to get into the GPS satellite business.  This section of the bill is too satellite oriented and assumes that private sector firms are always the best deal.  For example, there is extraordinarily valuable data from commercial commuter aircraft (TAMDAR) that the NWS is not acquiring, data that has been proven to substantially improve weather forecasts.  Second, for some satellite systems (GPS satellites) it might be that international cooperative efforts (e.g., COSMIC-2) might be far more cost effective and more quickly available.  The bill should make it clear that the NWS should report back on the potential for commercial data sources of all types and not make any assumptions of the best course until the information is in.

What is Left?

The above changes would lead to significant improvements in weather prediction in the U.S. and set the nation on a more rational, cost-effective, course for enjoying such improvements.   A huge step forward.

Although the new act would promote weather forecasting research, the real challenge is to encourage the most promising research and development, and then effectively moving that into operations.  Some approaches that might help in this:

(1) Combine the weather forecasting research groups in NOAA OAR and the operational weather prediction group in the NWS into one entity controlled by one manager.  The current structure is clearly dysfunctional.  The new group might be moved into the National Weather Service, perhaps being located in Boulder, Colorado--the intellectual capital of U.S. weather prediction.

(2)  New organizational structures that promote integrated research and operations, and a new attitude towards working with the research community and being open to innovation, are needed.  I have ideas on how this could be done, but that will wait until another blog.

(2)  To improve weather prediction, it is important to have a neutral arbiter of quality, a group that could evaluate potential innovations in a operational-like environment.   The Developmental Testbed Center (DTC) in Boulder, Colorado should/could play this role if given the chance and funding.

This blog is already too long...but the bottom line is clear:  improved weather prediction could be a huge positive for the U.S. and this bill, properly revised, could go a long way to making it happen.


  1. Have you seen Judy Curry's take on this?


    Anyway, I have to say if this is a bill that everyone is going to get behind, it is also going to have to be explicit about how the weather and climate communities work together. While I agree wholeheartedly that weather research within NOAA has taken a back seat to climate funding at NOAA, there is also going to have to be some thought given to how these two timescales can work together to better both. Integration is a smart word.

    Also, I will offer a slight rub on what you wrote here:

    "The funds should go to a new National Weather Research Program office in either the National Weather Service or NOAA, and the bill should be EXPLICIT that the bulk of the funds (say 60-70%) be directed to extramural funding outside of NOAA. I can not exaggerate the importance of this. Furthermore, at least 20% of the funds should go for forecast dissemination and communication research and development."

    Let's *make sure* that this doesn't just become another funding giveaway to academia who has their own ideas on how NWS/NOAA should do things and often can be JUST as dismissive (if not more) about the constraints and pressures that the government employees face. 24-7 doesn't have a lot of meaning to academia. And also the government is accountable to a lot of constituencies that academia never encounters. The point being is that scientists within NWS/NOAA often have their own ideas and priorities. Plus, because of diminished resources, the average met in the NWS/NOAA often doesn't have time to execute the research to operations, so they need soft money themselves in order to get the job done. So, I would encourage any increased soft weather funding be SPLIT among scientists within NOAA/NWS and outside of NOAA, working hand on hand on a joint project from the beginning. Otherwise, it becomes yet another replication of the tension between OAR and NWS.

  2. It's not true that "dozens of folks died during the El Reno tornado unnecessarily,because they decided to hit the roads when then tornado warning went out." One fatality was a man who chose not to stay in shelter because of claustrophobia, two were driving home from a doctor's appointment, and 5 chasers. In addition, there were 11 who left homes and sought shelter in drainage canals/tunnels miles from the tornado.

  3. Meanwhile, Seattle is on a great weather roll. Love it.

  4. The way to sell this to Democrats and "climatists" is to point out the relationship between climate change and severe weather, that better numerical weather modeling gives us a clearer picture about what the changed climate will look like on a day-to-day basis.

  5. Nice overview, Cliff, though I do not agree with everything, e.g., I side with Judith on external grants.

    The big elephant in the way of moving ahead is in the very first words of the current bill, "To prioritize and redirect NOAA resources to ...."

    In other words, no new base funding to support the intended goals - just pay Peter to pay Paul in resetting NOAA/NWS priorities in spending plans. Forget it given the ego and turf battles that will undermine any significant reallocation of resources.

    The interplay of NOAA/NWS with the academic and private sector ("weather enterprise") ideally would be one of complimentary give and take. In my opinion, however, the relationship has been largely one way: NOAA/NWS is expected to give while the community beyond takes.

  6. You are close to the mark Cliff but need a couple corrections. First, reprogramming within OAR won't help NWS as others mentioned, so, unless an NWS or external program manager was in charge, the bill is a waste of time. Second, sending "60 to 70%" external would hammer OAR programs causing more runs on NWS programs and more competition between OAR and NWS. Better would be to direct NASA and NSF to increase weather research external funding.
    I do think the bill has possibilities and would love to participate as an external manager if it could be fixed.


Please make sure your comments are civil. Name calling and personal attacks are not appropriate.

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