Today, NOAA held its monthly climate call, where it releases the previous month’s global average temperature, and discusses future weather and climate outlooks for the US. According to the data released today, April 2017 was the second warmest April on record after only April 2016, with a temperature 0.90°C (1.62°F) above the 20th century April average. Data for the contiguous US was released earlier, and found April 2017 to be the 11th warmest on record, and 2017 to be the second warmest year to date (January to April data).
That means that, yes, we are still seeing warming that is basically unprecedented.
Today’s data release was just one of the myriad ways NOAA’s data and research touches our lives in important ways. I can’t help but wonder if, before someone leaves their house in the morning, and checks the weather forecast—will it rain? Will it be hot or cold?— do they wonder how those numbers come about? Do they realize the sheer amount of science that goes into saying what will happen in every small town across the country (and the world)?
Do people think about science at all when they go about their lives? And do they wonder how that science comes to be?
Probably not. But here is why they should.
Science is essential for climate and weather predictions
NOAA (short for the “National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration”) is one the lead agencies that helps provide that science. But NOAA’s mission and budget are increasingly under attack under the Trump administration. President Trump’s pick for the new NOAA administrator will soon be announced, and it’s critical that s/he take a strong stance to defend the mission and the budget of the agency.
The National Weather Service, administered by NOAA, is one of the most essential federal institutions for regular citizens’ everyday lives. It is there (and at the Climate Prediction Center) that the data collected by instruments managed by Federal agencies all over the globe, on air, land, and sea, turns into something as important as weather forecasts and seasonal climate outlooks. Data from satellites is routinely used by local stations for tornado warnings, and hurricane tracking is also provided courtesy of those satellites and other instruments, like tide gauges that show the water rising to a flooding threshold, which in turn triggers warnings from the NWS for the affected areas.
It takes very specific and detailed scientific and engineering training to build those instruments in the first place—tide gauges, satellites, thermometers, you name it. And then, science is needed to interpret and make sense of the raw data. And because most people would agree that better forecasts make for improved planning of one’s life—from daily activities to crop planting to storm preparedness—yes, you guessed it, we need better science.
Unfortunately, what we are seeing in this administration is not very promising when it comes to leveraging and supporting science. On many fronts—NASA, NOAA, EPA, DOI, DOE, to name a few—science is being dismissed or ignored, to the detriment of the environment and people like you and me. Proposed budgets include cuts to many scientific programs within agencies. One can’t help but wonder what the consequences (especially unforeseen ones) would be.
NOAA needs more, not less funding
Current funding is already strained to produce enough research to prepare for the increased seasonal variability that we are observing, and that is expected to increase with climate change. We are seeing more devastating floods and worsening wildfire seasons, and many of our coastal cities are seeing significantly more flooding at high tides and during storms, due to sea level rise.
The weather that makes up our climate is behaving so erratically, we need more, not less resources to help predict and prepare appropriately. Fortunately, Congress has held the line so far on keeping budgets for FY17 close to prior year levels rather than accepting the drastic reductions proposed by the administration. We are working hard to help ensure that this trend continues when Congress appropriates the FY18 budget. NOAA needs more funding to continue its climate monitoring program and to improve seasonal forecasts and operational programs, which in turn are essential for planning budgets at state and local levels, and for preparedness measures that can save resources, lives and property.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could tell how much snow is REALLY coming so the right amount of road treatments can be allocated? Or how much rain is going to fall in a very short period of time and how much that river is going up after that rain? I think we can all agree on that.
The Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2017, which was signed into law in April 2017, is a breath of fresh air into NOAA’s forecasting lungs—but it is not enough. It focuses on research into sub-seasonal to seasonal prediction, and better forecasts of tornadoes, hurricanes, and other severe storms, as well as long-range prediction of weather patterns, from two weeks to two years ahead. One important aspect of the Act is its focus on communication of forecasts to inform decision-making by public safety officials.
The Act had bipartisan support and was applauded by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), a well-respected research institution. It was also championed by Barry Myers, the CEO of Accuweather and a frontrunner for the position of NOAA administrator. It is definitely a good step, and a long time coming, but we need more. We need continued support for these types of initiatives, and for the broader mission of NOAA.
We need a vision, and the resources to make it happen. We need an administrator who will turn that vision into reality.
NOAA is a lot more than weather forecasts
NOAA plays a large role in the US economy. It supports more than one-third of the US GDP, affecting shipping, commerce, farming, transportation, and energy supply. The data coming from NOAA also helps us maintain public safety and public health, and enable national security.
In addition to the NWS, other programs within NOAA are essential to track climate change and weather, such as the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS), which supports weather forecasts and climate research through the generation of over 20 terabytes of data daily from satellites, buoys, radars, models, and many other sources. Other important programs are the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR); and the Coastal Zone Management Program at the Office of Coastal MGMT (OCM), at the National Ocean Service (NOS).
Those programs provide state-of-the-art data that directly or indirectly affect all the aforementioned segments of Americans daily lives.
The US needs talent and resources to continue its top-notch work
In a recent blog, Dr. Marshall Shepherd laid out the five things that the weather and climate communities need from a NOAA administrator: to offer strong support for research; to support the NWS; to fight back against the attack on climate science; to protect the satellite and Sea Grant programs; and to value external science expertise. I couldn’t agree more!
NOAA can be the cutting-edge science agency for a “weather ready nation” helping communities become more resilient as they prepare for climate change risks. All it needs is a great administrator, who will stand up for science and fight for the needed budget for the agency’s ever growing needs. Will the nominee be up for the job? And will Congress and the Trump administration continue to provide the budget the agency needs to do its job well?