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Science Committee Begins Work to Update Weather Research Law

APR 13, 2023
House Science Committee members called for expanding the use of commercial weather data and improving data assimilation at a recent hearing kicking off an effort to update policy for weather research.
Jacob Taylor headshot
Senior Editor for Science Policy, FYI American Institute of Physics

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A mobile weather radar operated by the National Severe Storms Lab at the University of Oklahoma. (Image credit – Matthew Woods / NOAA / NSSL)

The House Science Committee launched an effort to update the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2017 on March 28, holding the first in a planned series of hearings to collect input. The update is a high priority for Committee Chair Frank Lucas (R-OK), who was a lead author of the 2017 act, the first major update to U.S. weather policy in a quarter-century.

Convened by the Environment Subcommittee, the hearing focused on ways to expand the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s use of commercial weather data, a focus of the earlier law that Lucas identified as an ongoing concern. “As we look to reauthorize the Weather Act, I will push to continue this growth and expand the options and resources NOAA has to incorporate private sources of data into their operational weather models and forecasts,” he said.

The hearing also explored issues an updated law could address, such as making more efficient use of the data NOAA already collects and increasing coordination across all federal agencies with a stake in weather forecasting. Committee members also probed why European forecasters at times outperform their U.S. counterparts.

Severe weather impacts hit home for committee members

“Being a farmer, working with livestock, and living in Tornado Alley, the Science Committee’s work on weather and climate is very important to me,” Lucas observed in his opening statement . “Protecting life and property, helping first responders anticipate extreme weather events, and ensuring that farmers and ranchers know when to plant crops are only a few of the reasons having the most accurate weather forecasts is invaluable,” he later added.

Environment Subcommittee Chair Max Miller (R-OH), a new member of Congress, similarly emphasized the prevalence of severe weather in the U.S. “In 2022 alone, there were 18 separate billion-dollar weather events that took the lives of 474 people and cost a total of $165 billion in damage to infrastructure, homes, businesses, and more,” he said, citing statistics compiled by NOAA.

Subcommittee Ranking Member Deborah Ross (D-NC) also cited NOAA’s statistic on the number of particularly damaging events, referring to them as “weather and climate disasters,” in line with the agency’s terminology.

Other Democratic members further linked extreme weather with climate change. Committee Ranking Member Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) noted that since last December California has suffered from devastating floods caused by a dozen “atmospheric rivers,” narrow regions in the atmosphere that carry large amounts of water vapor and frequently deposit it as rain or snow. “Climate change means that these atmospheric rivers coming over and over again may be the new normal,” she added

Lofgren argued that Congress should expand NOAA’s aircraft fleet so that it can collect more data on atmospheric rivers and expressed interest in supplementing this effort with data collected by the private sector.

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A storm produced by an atmospheric river dumps rain on California’s Pacific coast. (Image credit – NOAA)

Committee explores European edge in forecasting

Lofgren and other committee members drew attention to how the accuracy of U.S. weather forecast systems has continued to lag those run by Europe.

Attention to the disparity escalated in 2012 after the Global Forecast Model run by NOAA initially incorrectly predicted that Hurricane Sandy would remain at sea, while the European-built model correctly assessed that the storm would make landfall on the East Coast, where it inflicted billions of dollars in damage and killed more than 200 people.

University Corporation for Atmospheric Research President Tony Busalacchi testified at length on the subject. He argued that the U.S. has underfunded data assimilation, the process by which observational data is combined with near-term model outputs to obtain a better approximation of the current state of the Earth system.

He called assimilation “the flea on the tail of the dog in terms of investment,” noting that UCAR’s Joint Center for Satellite Data Assimilation has an annual budget of about $8 million in contrast to the $11 billion being spent to build the new GOES-R geostationary weather satellite constellation.

Echoing this sentiment, Lofgren said, “Obviously I’m concerned that we may have gaps in the collection of data. But if we’re not giving the tools to actually assimilate the data, the computing power and the like, focusing on data collection alone without utilization of that data would be a mistake.”

Busalacchi agreed, saying, “When the bits fall on the floor, we’re flushing dollars down the toilet.” He later drew attention to associated workforce needs, remarking, “The vast majority of our data assimilation scientists, software engineers are coming from overseas. We need to invest in our universities, community colleges for workforce development, because if we don’t we’re going to continue to fall behind our colleagues and our adversaries.”

Citing the European lead in forecasting, Rep. Mike Collins (R-GA), another new member of Congress, pointedly asked, “Has NOAA lost its way, or has it changed its mission?”

“Neither,” Busalacchi replied, arguing that NOAA does a “marvelous job” with its funding but is stretched thin by the breadth of its responsibilities. Noting that U.S. funding for weather research and forecasting is also spread across many agencies, he added, “We need to be more organized as a nation with respect to the resources we already have and be more effective and efficient in that regard.”

Miller asked about the effectiveness of the Interagency Council for Advancing Meteorological Services (ICAMS), which was created in 2020 in response to the Weather Act to improve coordination between relevant federal agencies. Busalacchi replied that he has not had much contact with ICAMS, but observed generally that U.S. agencies together already spend more on weather forecasting than their European counterparts.

“The goal and aspiration of ICAMS is to be much more effective and efficient. So, the ground has been laid. Now we need to take it to the next level,” he concluded.

Case made for expanding commercial data streams

A key provision of the Weather Act directed NOAA to establish a Commercial Weather Data Pilot program to test how commercially collected environmental data could supplement the data acquired from the agency’s satellites. Lucas noted that, while NOAA has since requested information from the private sector on a variety of data types, so far it has only purchased radio occultation data.

He went on to assert that NOAA has not yet fulfilled the spirit of the provision, stating he “purposely included language to have NOAA create a strategy to assess the range of commercial opportunities, including public-private partnerships for obtaining surface-based, aviation-based, and space-based weather operations.”

Committee Democrats generally expressed support for NOAA expanding its use of commercial data, with Lofgren saying it can be “very complementary” to the agency’s own data.

Lucas asked the witnesses to describe how NOAA might make use of other types of commercial data. In addition to Busalacchi, the committee received testimony from three representatives from companies that collect such data: Saildrone, which builds autonomous marine vessels; FLYHT Aerospace Solutions, which operates weather data sensors on aircraft; and Spire Global, which operates a constellation of small satellites that collect radio occultation data and has been a major participant in the Commercial Weather Data Pilot program.

Saildrone CEO Richard Jenkins encouraged the committee to “consider prioritizing ocean data by explicitly identifying it as a type of data that NOAA could and should source in the private sector by the Commercial Weather Data Program.”

FLYHT program manager Meredith Bell pointed to how data gathered by aircraft platforms could supplement satellites in “data-sparse regions” and provide a means of double-checking satellite data.

In a written statement , Michael Eilts, Spire Global’s general manager of weather and Earth intelligence, pitched the company’s hyperspectral microwave-sounding technologies and climate analytics as “valuable supplements to NOAA data sets, often filling both spatial and temporal gaps.” He also encouraged NOAA to purchase additional satellite data from commercial operators like Spire to spur private investment.

“Long-term commitments and signals from NOAA and other U.S. government agencies are hard to decipher and there appear to be minimal out-year funding plans. This leaves the private sector, including Spire, in a place where we do not have a long-term commitment, making it difficult for us to determine the continued investment we should make in providing services to the government and maintaining and growing our satellite constellation,” Eilts argued.

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