The GOP decides accurate weather forecasting and hurricane tracking are luxuries America can’t afford

Republicans try to defund NOAA’s satellite program — just as climate change is making the weather much more extreme.

UPDATE:  The author respond to comments below.

By Michael Conathan, CAPAF’s new Director of Oceans Policy

Weather predictions were once a frequent punchline but have improved dramatically in recent years. More often than not you’ll need an umbrella if your local television channel or website of choice tells you to take one when you leave the house. But we could take a huge step back to the days when your dartboard had a reasonable chance of outpredicting Al Roker if House Republicans have their way with the 2011 federal budget.

The House of Representatives is debating the Full Year Continuing Resolution Act (H.R. 1) to fund the federal government for the remainder of fiscal year 2011. The Republican leadership has proposed sweeping cuts to key programs across the climate change, clean energy, and environmental spectrum. They have also decided that accurate weather forecasting and hurricane tracking are luxuries America can no longer afford.

The GOP’s bill would tear $1.2 billion (21 percent) out of the president’s proposed budget for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA. On the surface, cutting NOAA may seem like an obvious choice. The FY 2011 request for the agency included a 16 percent boost over 2010 levels that would have made this year’s funding level of $5.5 billion the largest in NOAA’s history.

Even this total funding level, however, is woefully insufficient for an agency tasked with managing such fundamental resources as the atmosphere that regulates our climate, the 4.3 million square miles of our oceanic exclusive economic zone, the ecological health of coastal regions that are home to more than 50 percent of all Americans, response to environmental catastrophes including the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and fisheries that employ thousands of Americans and annually contribute tens of billions of dollars to the national economy.

More than $700 million of the president’s proposed 2011 increase in NOAA funding would be tagged for overhauling our nation’s aging environmental satellite infrastructure. Satellites gather key data about our oceans and atmosphere, including cloud cover and density, miniscule changes in ocean surface elevation and temperatures, and wind and current trajectories. Such monitoring is integral to our weather and climate forecasting and it plays a key role in projections of strength and tracking of major storms and hurricanes””things most Americans feel are worth keeping an eye on.

In fact, NOAA has been making great strides in hurricane tracking. The average margin of error for predicting landfall three days in advance was 125 miles in 2009″”half what it was 10 years prior. This data translates into a higher degree of confidence among the public in NOAA’s forecasts, which means individuals will be more likely to obey an evacuation order. Further, since evacuating each mile of shoreline costs approximately up to $1 million, greater forecasting accuracy translates to substantial savings.

The United States needs these satellites if we’re to continue providing the best weather and climate forecasts in the world. The implications of the loss of these data far exceed the question of whether to pack the kids into snowsuits for the trip to school. The concern here is ensuring ongoing operational efficiency and national security on a global scale. In some cases it can literally become a question of life and death.

Consider the following numbers:

  • The $700 billion maritime commerce industry moves more than 90 percent of all global trade, with arrival and departure of quarter-mile long container ships timed to the minute to maximize revenue and efficiency. Shipping companies rely on accurate forecasts to set their manifests and itineraries.
  • Forecasting capabilities are particularly strained at high latitudes and shippers have estimated that the loss of satellite monitoring capabilities could cost them more than half a billion dollars per year in lost cargo and damage to vessels from unanticipated heavy weather.
  • When a hurricane makes landfall, evacuations cost as much as $1 million per mile. Over the past decade, NOAA has halved the average margin of error in its three-day forecasts from 250 miles to 125 miles, saving up to $125 million per storm.
  • Commercial fishing is the most dangerous profession in the country with 111.8 deaths per 100,000 workers. A fisherman’s most valuable piece of safety equipment is his weather radio.
  • When disaster strikes at sea, polar-orbiting satellites receive emergency distress beacons and relay positioning data to rescuers. This resulted in 295 lives saved in 2010 alone and the rescue of more than 6,500 fishermen, recreational boaters, and other maritime transportation workers since the program began in 1982.
  • Farmers rely on NOAA’s drought predictions to determine planting cycles. Drought forecasts informed directly by satellite data have been valued at $6 billion to 8 billion annually.
  • NOAA’s volcanic ash forecasting capabilities received international attention last spring during the eruption of the Icelandic volcano, Eyjafjallaj¶kull. The service saves airlines upwards of $200 million per year.
  • NOAA’s polar-orbiting satellites are America’s only source of weather and climate data for vast areas of the globe, including areas key to overseas military operations. Their data are integral to planning deployments of troops and aircraft””certain high-atmosphere wind conditions, for example, can prohibit mid-air refueling operations.

All of these uses will be compromised if the Republicans succeed in defunding NOAA’s satellite program. At least an 18-month gap in coverage will be unavoidable without adequate funding for new polar-orbiting satellites this year. More troubling, taking an acquisition program offline and then restarting the process at a later date would lead to cost increases of as much as three to five times the amount the government would have to spend for the same product today.

So here’s the choice: Spend $700 million this year for continuous service or $2 billion to $3.5 billion at some point in the future for the same equipment and a guaranteed service interruption.

Environmental satellites are not optional equipment. This is not a debate about whether we should splurge on the sunroof or the premium sound system or the seat warmers for our new car. Today’s environmental satellites are at the end of their projected life cycles. They will fail. When they do, we must have replacements ready or risk billions of dollars in annual losses to major sectors of our economy and weakening our national security.

That’s an ugly forecast. Tragically, it’s also 100 percent accurate.

— Michael Conathan is Director of Oceans Policy at American Progress.

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37 Responses to The GOP decides accurate weather forecasting and hurricane tracking are luxuries America can’t afford

  1. Bill W says:

    It’s all part of the Republican strategy of sticking their heads in the sand when it comes to climate. If they can’t see it, it’s not happening.

  2. Stuart says:

    Climate has a well-known liberal bias.

  3. Robert In New Orleans says:

    This is a serious issue, as the satellite imagery that I look at on the internet is a very important piece of information. It helps me to to determine whether or not I will evacuate from the area.

    How come the insurance industry is not pushing back against this?

  4. Lee Ann Forrester says:

    They want to get rid of information. They don’t want an informed electorate. Get rid of anything that gives us information and feed us FOX news and you will have a nation of sheep doing whatever they want. This is scarey stuff really.

  5. Same Ordinary Fool says:

    If not CO2, what?……….Someone should remind the Republican politicians that their skeptic scientists have no alternative explanation for the increase in global temperatures. It’s something unknown, acting on clouds, or…?

    The politician’s appropriate response would be to continue funding until the ‘real’ reason for the global warming is found.

  6. Yvan Dutil says:

    I did work on one of the instrument of this new satellite, while it was stillo names NPOES. Those guys do not understand the importance of those satellite. The are only three operational polar weather satellite at the same time. On European METOP and TWO American. The constellation is already stretched to the limit. Any further satellite failure is considered as a treat to the national security! Where they will pick the weather data? From China?

  7. Michael T. says:

    NOAA: Another Spring of Major Flooding Likely in North Central U.S.

    A large swath of the country is at risk of moderate to major flooding this spring, from northeastern Montana through western Wisconsin following the Mississippi River south to St. Louis, National Weather Service flood experts are forecasting. Today the agency released an initial spring flood outlook for this high risk region and will release a national spring flood outlook on March 17.

    For the third consecutive year, forecasters predict moderate to major flooding along the Red River of the North, which forms the state line between eastern North Dakota and northwest Minnesota and includes the Souris River Basin and the Devils Lake and Stump Lake drainages in North Dakota.

    If the current forecast holds, the main stem Mississippi River is at risk for moderate to major flooding from its headwaters in St. Paul, Minn., all the way to St. Louis.

  8. “We have met the enemy and he is us!” Pogo 1970

  9. Scrooge says:

    A picture is worth a thousand words. The trouble is when you explain what problems will arise it becomes a complex problem which is beyond the comprehension of half the politicians. It looks like the GOP may be trying to throw the economy in the dump to try and gain an advantage in the next election.

  10. Mimikatz says:

    It is up to the industries that benefit from this large government subsidy (maritime, insurance etc) to push back. If they won’t fight for these services, let them set up a private system–isn’t that what the GOP wants? That goes for climate research as well. If they can’t see the value of this data, it will get cut; what we think isn’t even on the radar.

    Remember, though, the GOP has scheduled its 2012 noiminating convention for Tampa Bay on the anniversary of Katrina, in a state where the Governor is slashing public services right and left. Things are shaping up very interestingly for the Summer of 2012.

  11. RH factor says:

    Well isn’t this Peachy. It’s the southern and Midwesterner’s who picked these incredulous creatons as there elected representatives – I say screw them to the floor boards.

    How about an alliance of Northeastern and Western coast states Who don’t share their information with the idiocy who elected such science challenged dismally uninformed psychotic white trash.

    Fight back like it’s war baby. This is war. This is protection of you and yours and mine and it’s national security. Time to go mid evil and make waves.

  12. Prokaryotes says:

    “When men yield up the privilege of thinking, the last shadow of liberty quits the horizon.”, Thomas Paine

  13. Colorado Bob says:

    ScienceDaily (Feb. 17, 2011) — Rising carbon dioxide levels associated with global warming may affect interactions between plants and the insects that eat them, altering the course of plant evolution, research at the University of Michigan suggests.

  14. Edward says:

    So where is the petition?

  15. Tim says:

    They want to defund the NOAA satellite program for the same reason they want to defund NPR: their paymasters don’t like the information they’re getting.

  16. Prokaryotes says:

    Norway, Sweden Work to Contain Oil Spill

    “Currently the oil has drifted into the area of the natural park,” Mr. Ly said.

    Oil Prices Rise as Middle East Clashes Continue

    All this ECONOMY threats should be long time a thing of the past. BUT because of die-hards like Charles or David Koch or reckless Rex Tillerson, which actively fund and orchestrate the attack on the science, we still fuck around with dirty oil.

  17. Prokaryotes says:

    From the Party for Emission

    House votes to let Pentagon sponsor NASCAR races

    Read more:

  18. Colorado Bob says:

    An incredible 110° temperature swing in 1 week in Oklahoma
    The temperature in Bartlesville, Oklahoma shot up to a record 82°F yesterday, just seven days after the city hit -28°F on February 10. This 110°F temperature change has to be one of the greatest 1-week temperature swings in U.S. history. The -31°F that was recorded in nearby Nowata last week has now been certified by the National Weather Service as the new official all-time coldest temperature ever recorded in Oklahoma. What’s more, the 27 inches of snow that fell on Spavinaw, Oklahoma during the February 8 – 9 snowstorm set a new official state 24-hour snowfall record. The previous record was 26″, set on March 28, 2009, in Woodward and Freedom.

    A 100+ degree temperature change in just six days is a phenomenally rare event. I checked the records for over twenty major cities in the Midwest in Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, Wyoming, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Montana, and could not find any examples of a 100-degree temperature swing in so short a period of time. The closest I came was a 108° swing in temperature in fourteen days at Valentine, Nebraska, from -27°F on March 11, 1998 to 82°F on March 25, 1998. Valentine also had a 105°F temperature swing in fifteen days from November 29, 1901 (71°F) to December 14, 1901 (-34°F.) Our weather historian, Christopher C. Burt, lists the world record for fastest 24-hour change in temperature as the 103°F warm-up from -54° to 49° that occurred on January 14 – 15, 1972, during a chinook wind in Lowe, Montana. This week’s remarkable roller coaster ride of temperatures in Oklahoma is truly a remarkable event that has few parallels in recorded history.

  19. PurpleOzone says:

    Weather research cannot be separated from climate research. If you try to kill climate research you are sacrificing the ability to do better weather forecasting.

    It sounds like these cuts are much worse, killing the ability to use or replace operational weather satellites.

    If the general public becomes aware this is the deal they will rebel. It was public support for government weather forecasting that prevented the weather satellites from being “sold” to private industry during the Reagan administration.

    All private industry got was the Landsat satellites + $1/2 billion in cash, that’s how the Relpublicans “sell” government assets. This decision was termed “in retrospect a bad decision” as industry (including oil interests) pushed Landsat back to the government, in part, during the first Bush’s administration.

  20. Chris Winter says:

    Scrooge wrote (#9): “It looks like the GOP may be trying to throw the economy in the dump to try and gain an advantage in the next election.”

    This is highly likely given their past behavior. There’s even a theory that describes it: Jude Wanniski’s “Two Santa Claus Theory.”

    The ninth and tenth paragraphs in Thom Hartmann’s January 2009 essay are especially noteworthy:

    “[T]o attain any success it is quite clear that the Federal government cannot avoid or escape responsibilities which the mass of the people firmly believe should be undertaken by it. The political processes of our country are such that if a rule of reason is not applied in this effort, we will lose everything—even to a possible and drastic change in the Constitution. This is what I mean by my constant insistence upon ‘moderation’ in government.

    “Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H. L. Hunt [you possibly know his background], a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.”

  21. Seth Masia says:

    There’s an idea now circulating that the Republican frosh in the House are entirely agnostic regarding budget cuts. They don’t care about programs — any budget cut is good, regardless of whom it hurts. The weather-satellite news tends to support this idea. But I’ll believe it when I see these guys call for cuts in fossil-fuel subsidies.

  22. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    There go Mr Mencken’s ‘downright morons’ again! They hate science, knowledge and people who are smarter than themselves with great passion. I think another baleful influence that might be underestimated is that of fundamentalist religiosity. A lot of these Dunning Krugerites are fundamentalist Christians, some few fundamentalist Jews. Fortunately no fundamentalist Moslems are present, yet, and I’m not certain of the status of fundamentalist Hindus in your politics. They are, of course, a tremendous menace in India.
    These fundamentalists have firmly closed minds. They ‘know’ everything by means, not of cognition, reflection, conjecture and discussion, but by a priori ‘faith’ installed in them from birth in a process of brainwashing. So you have ‘Christian Zionists’ who see Israel as 100% right all the time, no matter what, ‘Dominionists’ who want to subjugate the entire planet (ie wage endless religious war, because their Doppelgangers in Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism won’t go without a fight) and the ‘faith-based science’ numb-skulls, the ‘Creation Scientists’ and anthropogenic climate disruption deniers. Of course some of the latter might accept the science, but be pleased to see ‘God’s Plan’ to end this world, punish the Ungodly, and raise the True Believers up to Glory in the Rupture, the resulting dehiscence bathing us sinners in fire and brimstone (rising temperatures, anybody?).
    This perversion of religious faith, of the teachings of the Nazarene, who preached acceptance, forgiveness and forebearance, the harking back to the brutality of the Old Testament and its multifarious massacres and genocides of the ‘Unbelievers’, and the reliance on the Apocalyptic visions of various ‘prophets’ who had probably been eating too much mouldy rye bread, makes these lunatics unable to be reasoned with. They reject reason, preferring faith, they reject evidence preferring revelation and they reject respect for the views of others, they being, by definition, enemies of that one, true, God, the fundamentalist’s own ego projection.

  23. Rick Covert says:

    Something to think about. Texas is the nation’s gas tank. Texas is also on the gulf coast where hurricanes make oil extraction dangerous. Is defunding NOAA really that smart?

  24. sailrick says:

    It’s bad enough that these idiots want to defund NOAA’s ability to maintain satellites for climate study, but we need to spend much more for instrumentation and research of the deep ocean. I agree with others here, that the GOP simply does not want to know any facts.

  25. This goes beyond just the satellite program… as the NWSEO has highlighted, a $125 million cut over 6 months (roughly 20-30%) would devastate the National Weather Service in a way probably never before seen.

    Rolling closures of offices for up to 1 month at a time?
    Halting the roll out of the dual-pol radar upgrade?
    Lack of training funds for new employees when nearly 50% of NWS employees are near retirement?

    And how exactly will these things not affect lives and property in a profoundly negative way?

    It is fascinating to me the amount of cuts made in the areas of government that have had the smallest impacts on the deficit, and the areas that have grown substantially have basically been left untouched.

  26. Rick Covert says:

    The cuts are nothing short of what you’d expect from a recking crew. In addition to tracking hurricanes on earth NOAA works in conjunction with the National Weather Service to track solar storms. These storms can have a beneficial or a damaging effect on communications infrastructure like our satellites. Loosing the ability to track these storms does the one thing that the GOP says it is for and that is helping US busnesses. This has more to do with ideology and less to do with helping US businesses.

  27. Chris Winter says:


    I presume you refer to The Wrecking Crew, a 2008 book by Thomas Frank (author of What’s the Matter with Kansas?) — as opposed to the 1969 film starring Dean Martin and Elke Sommer.

    For the former, see:

  28. ss says:

    Hey, I have an idea! Let’s keep it. Other things are important too? OK, let’s keep them too. Oh, and some things are super awesome important? Well, obviously, let’s keep them. Impending financial disaster? Um, let’s not. Oh, and let’s get us some high speed trains! Yay, Democrats!

  29. Windsong says:

    Republicans are the most ignorant people! I REALLY hate them!!

  30. Yvan, you’re spot on. If these satellites don’t go up, there is no other source for these data. When the first existing polar orbiting satellite fails, we’ll be down to one US bird and one European. This is precisely the concern, and why I expect we will see some significant noise made about these issues on the Senate side after the Presidents’ Day recess. (Or at least, some noise that’s as significant as can be made about half a billion dollars in a $3.7 trillion budget.) Powerful industries, including agriculture and shipping which actually hold some sway, should get some phones ringing on the north side of the Hill.

    It’s also important to note that the satellite funding represents only slightly more than half of the requested funding increase for NOAA, so even if the $700 million is restored for that program, the projected shortfall in the National Weather Service budget which W Scott Lincoln pointed out above would remain, and could still cause the problems enumerated by the NWSEO.

    Unless you already know your cumulonimbus from your cirrostratus, you better start traveling with your umbrella and wellies.

  31. Antineofascist says:

    Just using the numbers in your article, they ask for a whopping 16% increase which will take them to 5.5 trillion. That means the current is about 4.62 trillion. You say they cut 21% from the requested so they really just cut less than 6% (or about 277 billion) from their current budget taking them from 4.62 trillion to 4.35 trillion. Please correct any math mistakes.

    Now I’m sure you think this is essential spending but lets use appropriate numbers and not rely on fear to get the point across. With the budget deficit issue, it seems 5% isnt that unreasonable a cut (I say make that across the board), fear notwithstanding.

  32. Antineofascist says:

    Sorry. Obviously typed wrong word. Change trillion to billion and billion to million.

  33. Wah says:

    I’ve asked this before, but this seems a good place for it again…is there any major political organization in a first world country, other than Republicans in the U.S., that thinks goblal warmin is a flat out lie? Is there anyone else who a) matters and b) this this same crap?

    [JR: No. Search “National Journal” here.]

  34. Steveo says:

    Why should the GOP care about hurricane predictions, I thought they had a machine that created extreme weather like that.

  35. Ernie says:

    just another example to add to the list of examples. I really hope the country sees these folks for what they are in the next election cycle. I am tired of folks trying to drive us back to the dark ages.

  36. Antineofascist,

    The 21% cut is what the House would impose on the President’s request for NOAA’s FY2011 budget. The FY11 request would represent an increase of about $800 million (or 17%) over the FY2010 enacted budget level of $4.7 billion. This entire increase was targeted for the satellite program. Thus, the House bill that would cut NOAA funding to $4.3 billion is approximately a $400 million (or 9%) cut from the currently enacted level which would still leave the satellite program $800 million shy of what it would need to keep the polar-orbiting satellite program on track. NOAA has said it could make do with something slightly less than the requested $800 million increase, but level or reduced funding for FY11 will completely derail the program.

    The broader point here, is that saying “take a 5% spending cut across the board” is an over-simplification. Programs have variable year-to-year needs, particularly when it comes to system acquisitions. There are some programs, like these satellites, that will actually end up costing MORE if we spend less on them today. You don’t have to buy a new roof for your house every year, but when it starts to leak, you pony up and pay for repairs or else risk having the whole thing fall in on your head.

  37. Mark says:

    Right on the start page of their website it tells you precisely why the GOP MUST defund this org. It says: World’s Largest Archive of Climate Data.

    That sort of information can’t be allowed to be looked at, read, accumulated, analyzed or used.