President Trump’s Proposed Budget Cuts: Hurting NOAA Hurts America

March 6, 2017 | 1:30 pm
Erika Spanger-Siegfried
Director of Strategic Climate Analytics

Here’s a simple recipe for angering millions of Americans: take away something they heavily depend on. News reports this weekend indicate that the Trump administration is proposing to do just that by making deep cuts to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) budget. Congress would be wise to get a handle on what these cuts mean and ensure they are dead on arrival.

Whether we Americans know it or not—and I’d wager that the president and some of his advisers are among those of us who don’t—we rely heavily on NOAA.

We rely on NOAA to help us maintain public safety and public health, provide weather forecasts, and enable national security. It supports shipping, commerce, farming, transportation, and a secure energy supply. We rely on it because we can only understand our world and emerging threats within it through the use of information and data.

NOAA is one of our nation’s premiere science agencies (with NASA, also under threat) and deeply interwoven into the nation’s economy. Overall, an estimated one-third of America’s GDP is affected by the services NOAA provides.

We can be forgiven for not realizing the way NOAA supports our information-driven world, but the administration should know better and should walk back these cuts.

A day without NOAA satellite data? Better stay home.

Did you check the weather report this morning before leaving the house? As my colleague reports in her recent blog on NOAA, “No matter your source of weather, all forecasts are underpinned by observations and models provided by NOAA through its National Weather Service (NWS) and National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS).”

As the agency puts it: “Weather forecasters across the country and around the world rely on data provided by the NOAA Satellite and Information Service. […] This 24/7, uninterrupted flow of essential environmental intelligence is the backbone of the National Weather Service’s sophisticated computer modeling to create forecasts and warnings for severe weather events, thereby saving lives and protecting local communities.”

Many of us don’t get out of bed in the morning without checking in with NOAA’s latest data in the form of our local weather forecasts.

Indeed, NOAA’s role in providing advance warning on storms and extreme weather and its increasingly accurate storm tracking capabilities can determine how federal and state officials muster resources in advance of landfall, how local officials and emergency managers manage evacuations and preparations, and how families and individuals respond to the threat.

It’s not an overstatement to say that without NOAA data, the data-guided, informed-up-to-the-minute lives we lead would be palpably affected. Depending on how these cuts were absorbed within NOAA’s satellite division, they could prevent accurate weather forecasting, undermine disaster management, undercut crop production, and obscure the rise of important threats, like droughts and wildfire conditions, algal blooms toxic to human health, or wave heights dangerous to shipping.

NOAA’s satellites provide military personnel with “forecasts and imagery for their aircraft, ships, ground forces and facilities worldwide.” And they are the reason that the Department of Homeland Security and state and local emergency planners can count on up-to-the-minute information on storms and other weather-related hazards, as those dangerous situations evolve.

The Washington Post reports that the administration’s Office of Management and Budget released an initial budget proposal (referred to as a “passback” document) calling for cuts to NOAA’s satellite data division, NESDIS, of $513 million, or 22 percent of its current funding. Such cuts would cripple NOAA’s ability to keep its satellites and data-gathering activities going.

It’s unclear who would benefit from such cuts—freeing up only a small sliver of the federal budget for other uses—but it’s clear who they would hurt. They would leave Americans less informed and less safe, businesses less certain, and they would throw mayors, state governors, and first responders under the bus, as their effectiveness in an emergency so often depends on NOAA’s good information.

The cuts are being pitched, according to the Post, as “tradeoffs” and as part of the administration’s efforts to “prioritize rebuilding the military” and would seek “savings and efficiencies to keep the Nation on a responsible fiscal path.”

But this is a poor trade-off, especially given NOAA’s comparatively small budget and the dependence of national security and the economy on NOAA’s services.  We can’t trade off some of the important ingredients for fiscal health, public safety, and national security and expect to somehow have them all anyway. Those aren’t trade-offs so much as diminished returns.

NOAA’s share of the federal budget: The main pie on the left is the total federal budget in fy16 (roughly $3.85 trillion). NOAA’s share, at $6.5 billion, is too small to be seen. But if we set aside Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid (blue), and the military (red), and instead focus on the slice that represents everything else (green), we see that NOAA represents a tiny share of that piece, while providing outsized value. The budget for NESDIS, NOAA’s main satellite division, was $2.3 billion. (Sources: NOAA Corporate Services; Congressional Budget Office)

A future without NOAA satellite data? Let’s not.

NOAA data tell us where we’ve been and, if we use it well, where we’re going.

UCS has used its tide gauge data and sea level rise research, for example, to project tidal flooding and permanent inundation of US coastal land areas, including major military bases.

Today, NOAA’s coastal data are vital to the efforts of coastal communities to plan and prepare for coastal change, including rising seas. States like South Carolina recognize their current and future coastal risks, thanks in no small part to NOAA, and are using NOAA resources to plan and prepare for the future.

Without a clear indication of the coming threat of sea level rise, increased storm surge, and permanent inundation—an indication that depends on updated NOAA data and, often, research—coastal communities will fail to foresee and invest in the necessary measures and will find themselves stuck amidst rising waters.

Defund NOAA’s monitoring capabilities? Hobble coastal communities planning abilities? Compound emergency management challenges? No, thanks. We built those capabilities out of a clear need and, with sea level rise, leaders in red and blue states alike know that kind of need is only growing, and rapidly.

There has been much said about the Trump administration’s seeming preference for the America of the Eisenhower years. Deep cuts to NOAA, including its satellites and data gathering, would indeed be a big backward step in that direction. But the world has moved on and Americans don’t want to go back to living with poorer information and a less accurate sense of what’s coming.

We want, we need, we demand the things that good satellite data enables in our lives, and the secure future it can help us build. This country as we know it can’t be great—arguably, it can’t even keep the lights on—without it.

These very things make America great

From its earliest inception as the “Survey of the Coasts” under President Thomas Jefferson, NOAA has been responsible for gathering and distributing data of national importance. Over time, the demands we have placed on NOAA for generating and storing data have grown, as our society and economy have grown in size and complexity.

Today NOAA generates “over 20 terabytes of data daily from satellites, buoys, radars, models, and many other sources” through our NESDIS program.

Much of this data is housed in our National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI), which “hosts and provides public access to one of the most significant archives for environmental data on Earth. […] we provide over 25 petabytes of comprehensive atmospheric, coastal, oceanic, and geophysical data.” And it’s not just recent data that NOAA offers: NOAA’s records “include observations dating back to the earliest days of the United States and data about environmental conditions thousands of years ago.”

A national treasure, I would argue. One valued by scientists worldwide. But also an asset vital to our economy, public health and safety, and national security—and a clear value, in light of its relatively small budget.

One of the things NOAA does with this data is prized in red and blue coastal states alike: NOAA Sea Grant projects. The cuts in the OMB document would eliminate Seagrant, a much-loved program, consistently making a difference in people’s lives. As Andy Rosenberg, director of UCS’s Center for Science and Democracy put it “eliminating Sea Grant, an enormously successful program led by 33 states to provide science to address local issues, would seriously hinder capacity in states like Alaska, Maine, South Carolina, Florida, and Alabama to understand and protect their coastal areas.” This successful program with the tiny budget is the kind of thing we celebrate and, were possible, replicate. Not eliminate.

Who thought this was a good idea? If they are attuned to their state’s coastal communities, those in Congress will not.

NOAA’s mission: To understand and predict changes in climate, weather, oceans, and coasts; to share that knowledge and information with others; and to conserve and manage coastal and marine ecosystems and resources. Keep up the good work, folks! (Credit: Bobby Magill)

Let’s also remember that what greatness we have comes in no small part from the boundaries we push and the new heights we reach in science, technology, and engineering.

NOAA’s newly-launched GOES-16 satellite is one such height. GOES shows its worth in new storm footage (see video) that can distinguish far better between cloud layers, and between clouds that hold rain versus ice—a development that can greatly increase our storm forecasting abilities. For Northeast states like Maine, shown in this video, that are frequently hammered by Nor’easters, developments like this are important and to be celebrated, not defunded, just as we’ve arrived at this new capability.

GOES-16 also reminds us that a nation of such wealth and talent needs to be and stay at the world’s leading scientific edge. New GOES-16 images of the sun’s flares not only inform things like electric grid management, they astonish and inspire. Way to be great, NOAA.

NOAA’s newest satellite, GOES-16, launched in late 2016, is sending us valuable data about and stunning images of our sun. (Credit: NOAA)

Defending our science from an anti-science administration

This administration has a flagrantly anti-science agenda. It seems intent on undermining climate science in particular—one of the most important pursuits of our time—and dismantling the architecture that enables climate data gathering and research. Indeed, the proposed budget also deeply cuts the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, home to NOAA’s research efforts, including NOAA’s Climate Program Office. UCS says not on our watch. Congressional allies must do the same.

The Trump administration should do its homework, get a handle on the science that is currently great and essential for our nation’s security, economy, and public safety, and keep hands off those things—in this case, the satellites that our nation operates and the vital data it gathers under NOAA. And Congress should make sure those data and tools and science writ large are kept safe from misguided budget cuts.

Please call your Congressperson and tell them to oppose cuts to NOAA’s budget.