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National Weather Service warns budget cuts could mean forecasting advances may slow

Filed by KOSU News in Feature.
July 12, 2013

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The following was written by KOSU’s Ashley Chase.


During the recent tornadoes that hit the state, many people did what most would do during severe weather: turn on their televisions and radios. The National Weather Service has provided Oklahomans, as well as the rest of the country, with severe weather updates and warnings for more than 100 years.  With recent budget cuts to the organization now in place, the progress made in weather forecasting over those years may decline.

While a deadly tornado roared through Moore, all was quiet inside the National Weather Service Center in Norman a few miles away.

Throughout a room of about 30 meteorologists, only a few clicks from keyboards and some low murmurs could be heard. The main wall in front of them is covered with television monitors, projecting all of the local weather stations.

Meteorologist Rick Smith said they watch every station at all times to make sure their readings match those from the media.

“We work very closely with them. They are our partners in this warning team and warning business. I don’t think either of us could do our jobs without the other, so we depend very heavily on the media, including radio and television to get the warning out to people.”

Inside the National Weather Center, all is quiet. Yet another possible storm could be brewing that could sweep away technology advancements that Rick says the media relies on.

The National Weather Service will see an 8.2% drop from the $972 million budget; small pieces of the $85 billion sequester cuts affecting most federal agencies.

Although the cuts may seem small, some experts are not only worried about jobs that could be lost, but also about a decrease in advancing warning technologies that could bring information to the public more quickly during future, fast-developing storms.

Dr. Marshall Shepherd, President of the American Meteorological Society, said the cuts are more than a nuisance to the National Weather Service but a threat to national security.

“To launch a weather satellite is not like changing a light bulb once the light bulb goes out. It takes many years and engineering in development in order to get one up there. We have a new system coming, but our current satellites are aging. They aren’t ready yet.”

“We may be flying blind a while.”

Budget cuts would affect necessary tools used, such as satellites; the same tools used to run GPSs, cable televisions and high speed internet connections.

While loss of connection can be frustrating to deal with for these every-day technologies, the loss of these key weather satellites would do more than hinder the weather industry. With budget cuts affecting satellite maintenance, gaps in transmissions can appear.

Director Dave Powner of the Government Accountability Office, an investigative nonpartisan agency that works for the U.S. Congress, says developing gaps in the current weather satellites could the result of “flying blind”; gaps that could leave the National Weather Service and the rest of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration without their key satellite orbits while they wait for satellite repairs, keeping them in the dark almost a year.

“You can’t really buy back the gaps. There is a potential gap of about 17 months where we’re not going to have this one key afternoon orbit.”

Without these 17 months, Powner says the National Weather Service would have to use other satellites, such as commercial satellites. Yet Powner says many of these commercial satellites orbit too close to Earth to give accurate enough readings for tools such as Doppler radar, which is a key tool in tracking tornado activity.

Without these readings, warnings to the public could be affected; a public that Shepherd says relies heavily on the most up to date information.

“We’ve become spoiled brats when it comes to weather. We expect to know that there’s a hurricane coming because we have satellites up, or we expect to have 15 minutes lead time for tornadoes because we have Doppler radar.”

“Some of our weather forecasting and warning capacity can go backward. It can go in reverse.”

During the May 20th tornado, people flocked to the National Weather Center in Norman in search of shelter, believing that the center that brought them storm warnings would be the safest place to hide from severe weather.

Smith said the number of people in the building, below where meteorologist were monitoring the storm, was staggering.

“We had 300 to 400 people probably here.”

While Smith says just as Oklahomans rely on them for shelter, they also rely on them to continue to provide them with the most up-to-date information. The question now might be whether or not they will have the technology to provide this future security.


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