Storms Are Getting Stronger As More Budget Cuts Harm Technology To Monitor Storms

Our guest blogger is Andrew Freedman, managing editor for online content and climate policy analyst at Climate Central. He also blogs for the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang.

In the wake of Hurricane Irene’s deadly march up the East Coast, and with two new tropical systems to track – Hurricane Katia and Tropical Storm Lee – hurricane forecasters are under increasing pressure to improve the accuracy of their forecasts. In particular, the National Weather Service (NWS) has taken some heat regarding its forecasts for Hurricane Irene’s intensity although meteorologists predicted the storm’s track with a high degree of accuracy.

Specifically, NWS meteorologists working at the National Hurricane Center in Miami did not anticipate the weakening trend that brought Irene ashore as a Category One hurricane in North Carolina, rather than a strong Category Two or low-end Category Three storm. After weakening even more, Irene was downgraded to a tropical storm when it made a third landfall near New York City on Aug. 28.

Yet, despite its weakening winds, Irene unleashed a record deluge over already waterlogged states like New Jersey, New York, and Vermont. Irene is estimated to have caused upwards of $13 billion in damage, and killed 46 people – more than double the number of people whose deaths are directly attributable to Hurricane Andrew in 1992, a Category Five storm. Longer-term data shows the United States is increasingly vulnerable to extreme weather events, including hurricanes and the many dangers they bring with them.

As my Climate Central colleague Heidi Cullen wrote this week in the Daily Beast, this year is becoming known as the “Year of Billion Dollar Weather,” with a record number of natural disasters costing more than a billion dollars.

“Preliminary estimates place the total damage on property and the economy for all weather-related disasters this past year at more than $35 billion. With four months left in the year, we’ve already set a record for the most billion-dollar weather disasters, breaking the old record of nine that occurred in 2008,” Cullen wrote.

There is a growing consensus among hurricane experts that warming seas will result in stronger and wetter storms in the coming decades, although fewer of the storms may occur. This makes the need to more accurately anticipate their strength and movement an even more urgent task. In addition, hurricane experts are united in warning about the recklessness of coastal development practices that have placed too many people in harms way, thereby ensuring that any land-falling storm will be more damaging and potentially deadly.

At the same time that damage costs are increasing, our ability to monitor and predict weather and climate threats is eroding. Budget cuts are threatening everything from a key weather satellite to the “hurricane hunter” research flights the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration flies into fierce storms like Irene. As I wrote in the Washington Post last month, program delays and a lack of full funding for the Joint Polar Satellite System, or JPSS, now virtually guarantee that the U.S. will be without a key weather satellite for up to a year, starting in 2016, when a polar orbiting satellite is likely to stop functioning before a delayed replacement can be launched. This will mean a decline in the accuracy of many weather forecasts, since this particular satellite provides crucial data that is fed directly into computer models.

Without continued investments, we may be in for a period of declining forecast accuracy and skyrocketing damage costs, in terms of both dollars and lives lost.

For example, right now NOAA researchers are in their third year of a 10-year project aimed at dramatically improving hurricane forecasts. But potential budget cuts to the research flights and satellite program, as well as possible cuts to the hurricane research program itself, means the researchers are facing an increasingly uncertain forecast of their own.

NOAA’s Hurricane Forecast Improvement Project, or HFIP, has ambitious goals – to cut forecast errors for both hurricane track and intensity projections by 50 percent during the course of only a decade. The total cost of the program is estimated at $170 million, according to Fred Toepfer, a NOAA project manager who is helping to lead the effort.

Toepfer says experimental computer models have already showed some gains in anticipating hurricane intensity changes, and much of the new data is now being made available in real-time to hurricane forecasters and the public, albeit with the prominent disclaimer that the information is experimental. “We’re just getting started, and we’re already seeing an impact,” Toepfer says.

Better forecasts can save the country money, and lots of it. Yet Congress has shown an increasing willingness to flout the warnings of the scientific community and deny funding for crucial weather and climate monitoring programs.

Toepfer estimates the hurricane research project, which is heavily reliant on polar satellites like those in the JPSS program, as well as NOAA’s fleet of “hurricane hunter” aircraft and other data sources, will provide close to $300 million per year in economic benefits. He noted that the evacuation of the Texas coastline in advance of 2005’s Hurricane Rita cost $2.2 billion, an economic loss that more accurate forecasts could have significantly limited.

A smaller evacuation, based on a more accurate projection of the areas that would receive the highest storm surge, could’ve saved up to $1.5 billion, Toepfer says.

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