March 20, 2017

Might Bipartisan Actions Revolutionize U.S. Weather Prediction?

 There is now a major opportunity to lay the basis for far better weather prediction in the U.S.  

And the effort could be completely bipartisan.    It would also provide an example of how both sides of the aisle can work together to make major improvements in a key national capability--weather prediction-- saving lives, protecting property, and substantially enhancing the economic vitality of the U.S.

There are two bipartisan bills before Congress right now that are worthy of support:

1. The Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2017:  H.R. 353 sponsored by Rep. Frank Lucas (R OK), Suzanne Bonamici (D OR), Lamar Smith ( TX), and others. And its carbon-copy version in the Senate.

2.  Radar Gap Study Act.  Text is here.  Sponsored by Senator Maria Cantwell (D WA),  Senator Richard Burr and Tom Tillis (R NC). Representative Robert Pittenger (R-NC) introduced companion legislation in the House of Representatives.

The Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act is extraordinarily forward leaning.  Its goal is to:

To improve the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s weather research through a focused program of investment on affordable and attainable advances in observational, computing, and modeling capabilities to support substantial improvement in weather forecasting and prediction of high impact weather events, to expand commercial opportunities for the provision of weather data, and for other purposes.

The specifics of the bill are enough to warm the heart of any American concerned about the quality  and future U.S. weather prediction, including:

1.  Organization of a coherent research program for improving U.S. weather science and prediction, including extramural (outside of the U.S. government) research.
2.  Develop rational methods for designing and supporting the U.S. weather observation system (amazingly this had really not been done).
3.  Organized efforts to improve U.S. tornado, hurricane, and subseasonal (less than a few months) forecasting.
4.  Requirement that the US Air Force explain their problematic selection of a non-U.S. weather modeling system for their operational requirements (big mistake by the way)
5.  Calls for the evaluation of more private sector weather observation assets.
6.  Annual reviews of the computer resources available for U.S. weather prediction.

..and much more.  The bill includes the financial resources needed for the above.    

Basically Congress is telling the NOAA/National Weather Service that is expect U.S. should be state-of-the-science and that the time for excuses are over.  Some in NOAA might be discomfited that Congress is providing a lot of guidance about what needs to be done.  But quite frankly, progress has been too slow and it is going to take Congress to move the U.S. weather prediction effort into higher gear.

The radar act sponsored by Senator Cantwell and her Republican colleagues from North Carolina?

It directs the National Weather Service (NWS) to determine which areas of the country have inadequate weather radar and develop a plan to improve radar coverage.  And there are major gaps in the radar coverage such the coastal zone west of Oregon, the eastern slopes of the Cascades, and much of eastern Oregon.  The National Weather Service radar coverage below 4, 6, and 10K feet ABOVE GROUND LEVEL (shown below for country and the NW) shows major gaps in the west, but the situation is MUCH worse than presented here.  Many of the radars start out high and thus the radar beams can miss the critical lower atmosphere. Radar coverage is very much needed along the eastern slopes of the Cascades for wildfire management and localized flash flood prediction.

I think we can be very hopeful that these important legislative measures will have a decent chance of passage.   Weather prediction is important for the entire country irrespective of one's political bent. Red states suffer from hurricanes and severe thunderstorms.  Blue states from atmospheric rivers and coastal storms.  Both endure drought, floods, wildfires, and windstorms.  Both Red and Blue state economies are highly vulnerable to weather for agriculture, transportation and more.

And yes, weather prediction (ranging from hourly to seasonal prediction) is not climate prediction, so it lacks the controversy of decadal to century-long forecast of greenhouse gas impacts.  So the current administration can support it.


  1. From a superficial viewpoint this all sounds ok. However addressing radar "gaps" in a 30 year old network of radars recenently retrofitted to increase physical stress on the aging components is simply ridiculous. Like addressing the cabin design on the Space Shuttle Callanger. The underlying mismanagement will be the undoing of the entire network.

    The agency responsible for the issues you speak of are also responsible for many issues you left out or are unaware of, and far more consequential to the country. Aging equipment, archaic technology, outdated methods are the hallmarks of the NWS management.

    You spend considerable time discussing topics all pointing to a needed overhaul of the NWS MANAGEMENT yet never address the root cause of the topics. Poor management and the lack of any management training translates to people with degrees in Meteorology making multimillion dollar decisions that waste taxpayer monies.

    I will give you one example, computers need to be cooled. The NWS has neglected their facilities nation wide for 30 years. Air Conditioning systems have been failing thought the country at an alarming rate. The money appropriated for maintaining these systems has been comically mismanaged and so huge "emergency expenditures" will have to bail out the agency.

    Why address the superficial when it's the cause you should be targeting?

  2. Cliff Mass,

    I love this thread, and fully support the move forward on radar coverage. Wonder what that would've done for the local forecasting authorities with the close calls this winter if we'd had the coverage on the coast before/during the close calls during the snow events? Maybe that JAN 10TH storm that was predicted to give Portland area 2-3", and ending up giving us between 10 to 18" would have been better forecast at least as it was unfolding? Or what about the Superbowl storm" that was forecast to possible dump anywhere from a trace to 18" between Portland and Seattle? I'm imaging that that would have been beneficial, had the radar coverage been better!

  3. The NOAA radar for Moses Lake is only correctly showing ground-reaching precip about 50% of the time. Sometimes even radar-indicated Moderate rain is actually zip-squat-nothing. Time to update the KMWH radar?


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