When I first heard that Congress had passed a bill it called the “Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act“, I was a little concerned. The majority has a history of being hostile to science (and one former senator was hostile to the National Weather Service in particular), and the title of the bill just screams “legislative doublespeak”. But I’ve
read skimmed the bill and there doesn’t seem to be much to object to.
Much of the bill is of a “duh, we’re already working on that” nature; it requires the National Weather Service to conduct research to improve forecasts and warnings. One think I liked is that it specifically called out communication of forecasts and warnings as an area of improvement. It requires the current system to be examined, with necessary changes made where the current system is unsatisfactory. The current watch/warning/advisory system leaves a lot to be desired.
This bill is probably most notable for what it doesn’t say. On the positive side, it does not proscribe specific metrics (e.g. “the average lead time for a tornado warning must be 60 minutes”). It seems clear that meteorological experts were consulted for this bill.
On the other hand, the only time “climate” is mentioned is when the full name of the COSMIC satellite program is given. There’s nothing in the bill that specifically precludes the NWS from conducting research related to climate change, but I couldn’t help reading into the stated focus or short-term and seasonal weather. Legislation isn’t written in a vacuum, and the plain fact is that the current administration and Congress aren’t big supporters of climate change research or mitigation.
The main area of concern for me is the budget. A few programs have specific dollar amounts assigned, but it’s not clear to me if those are new appropriations or a directive to use the existing budget to that purpose. Certainly the main budget will have an impact on how this bill, should it be signed, is implemented. Given the initial reports about the Trump administration’s first budget, I remain solidly pessimistic. But returning to the provisions of this specific bill, it requires a lot of reporting, much of which appears to be new. The reporting, and even the substantive efforts, could end up being an unfunded mandate.
I can’t predict what the outcome of this bill will be. It got bipartisan support and I haven’t heard of any major complaints from my friends within the Weather Service. That in itself is encouraging; it should at least do no harm. If backed with sufficient funding, this may lead to improved forecasts for a variety of weather hazards. This, of course, is the stated mission of the National Weather Service: to protect life and property.
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