A quick look at the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act

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.

Thoughts on the Weather Forecasting Improvement Act

Insurance Journal reported last week on a bill sponsored by Representative Jim Bridenstine (R-Oklahoma). In a fit of poor reporting, the author says the bill makes the “protection of people and property a priority.” Unfortunately, the National Weather Service mission statement has included “protection of life and property” for years. The bill itself contains no such insulting verbiage. On the surface, it’s actually a welcome relief: a Congressman looking to direct over half a billion dollars of new funding to scientific research and operations. In reality, it strikes me as more of a pipe dream.

The average tornado warning lead time is currently around 13 minutes. The goal of Bridenstine’s bill is a lead time of 60 minutes or more. Stretch goals are good, but a 4x increase is not, perhaps, the most appropriate for legislation. Even so, there’s a question of how valuable such an increase would really be. Increased protection of property is probably not going to be that dramatic with hour-long lead times. It’s not like people can move their houses and businesses out of the way. Some damage could be prevented by securing loose objects and boarding windows, but it’s not likely to be significant.

Protecting life is the more important aspect, but would a one-hour lead time help? I’ve argued for years that there’s definitely an upper bound to lead times after which the returns diminish. My suspicion is that as the lead time grows beyond that point, people become more and more complacent. This argument has been based on hunches and unsubstantiated reasoning. It turns out, there’s evidence that increased lead time has no impact on injuries from tornadoes.

Even if the benefits are minimal, the amount of learning that would have to take place to get lead times up to an hour would aid our understanding of severe weather. The improvements to observation networks and modeling would benefit all areas of weather forecasting. Even ┬áif tornado warning lead times remain unchanged, the scientific impact of this bill would be dramatic. I just worry that it’s setting the National Weather Service up for “failure”.