The wave of severe weather that left at least 45 people dead across the Midwest and South came just days after Congress agreed to slash funding for weather forecasting stations in the United States.
The storm hit late last week and continued to wreak havoc over the weekend. According to reports, it produced more than 100 tornadoes.
The storm's timing was ironic. It came in the wake of news about our nation’s weather forecasting and rescue and recovery abilities. During the furious budget-cutting debate, Congress decided to pinch the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) budget by nearly 33 percent. NOAA had requested $1.1 billion for its next-generation Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), which was slotted to launch in 2016 to replace a similar satellite that is expected to be out of service by then. To save money, the current plan is to launch JPSS in 2018. This new plan is coming under fire because it may not be a cost-saver in the long term and is likely to leave a gap in forecasting capabilities.
NOAA’s chief administrator, Dr. Jane Lubchenco, told a Senate committee last week that for every dollar saved now on the JPSS system, NOAA will pay between $3-5 in the long run. There also are concerns about a safety gap resulting from the delay. In all, a launch delay is likely to create a “data gap” that could last 18 months, affecting weather forecasting for storms between 2016 and late 2018.
In a New York Times story, Lubchenco warned that the ramifications of such a gap could go beyond forecasting, saying that search and rescue missions that rely on NOAA’s satellites could be undermined. That same story quotes Daniel Sobien, head of the union that represents government forecasts, characterizing this plan as a big risk.
During the debates about the budget this month, there has been a lot of discussion about economic responsibility, deficit reduction and government efficiency. But the debates on Capitol Hill — combined with last week’s storms across of a significant portion of the U.S. — bring these discussions into people’s backyards.