Tuesday, March 7, 2017

NOAA Budget Cuts Are Bad For National Defense and Homeland Security

"Know the enemy, know yourself; your victory will never be endangered. Know the ground, know the weather; your victory will then be total."
- Sun Tzu, The Art of War

"The US military is doing just fine...but let's cut NOAA's budget by 15%. Maybe we'll be like the Japanese navy in the 12th century...won't see the hurricane that hits us."
- University of Utah Atmospheric Sciences Alumnus
Budget proposals being considered by the Trump Administration and reported by The Washington Post last week include substantial increases in military spending ($54 Billion) and a 17% cut to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  As summarized by the Capital Weather Gang, plans for the NOAA budget include cuts of $513 million to the National Environmental Satelite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS), $126 million to the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR), and $53 million to the National Weather Service.

Let's be frank about this.  Increasing military spending while hampering NOAA is penny wise and pound foolish.  Ultimately, these proposed cuts represent a serious threat to National Defense and Homeland Security. 

Weather observations and forecasting are absolutely vital to the success of the U.S. military, but don't take my word for it.  Here's Fred Lewis, University of Utah alumnus (Ph.D. '79), retired brigadier general (US Air Force), former Director of Air Force Weather, and Senior Vice President for Sutron Corporation.

The U.S. military supports their own computer modeling systems and battlefield observations, but weather forecasting today "takes a village."  Satellite data is the background of modern weather forecasting, representing over 99% of the observations ingested by numerical weather prediction systems.  Polar orbiting satellites, which fly in low-Earth orbits that pass over or nearly over the north and south poles, are especially important. The cuts being proposed by the Trump Administration would delay the launch of two polar-orbiting satellites, increasing the likelihood of gaps in coverage as older satellites are retired or fail.  Such delays or gaps would reduce military forecasting capabilities, as well as civilian.

Speaking of civilian forecasting.  We are on the cusp of revolutionary advances in weather prediction as we move to newer "cloud-permitting" high-resolution ensemble modeling systems.  These modeling systems will have grid spacings smaller than 4 km, enabling much better simulation of cloud processes, hurricane eyewall dynamics, severe convective storms, and other phenomenon. By producing a suite of forecasts, rather than a single solution, these models will provide improved guidance on the range of possibilities and their likelihood prior to high-impact storms.  Nevertheless, these models are under development, and cuts to the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) will delay that development.  Cuts to satellite and other observation programs will also limit the capabilities of these modeling systems.

Of course the irony of these cuts is that they are being proposed during a time of tremendous excitement in the meteorological community as the new, revolutionary, GOES-16 satellite is now in orbit and being tested prior to becoming operational.  You've never seen anything like it.  High resolution, frequently updated satellite imagery.  Lightning mapping.  Space weather monitoring.  Three times more "channels" than the satellites it replaces, enabling improved identification of a wide-range of atmospheric phenomenon.  Here's a tease from the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere.

I don't wish to suggest that the NOAA (and National Weather Service) budget should not be scrutinized carefully.  I consider such efforts to be essential.  However, the proposed cuts are severe and will have an impact on the weather prediction capabilities for both National Defense and Homeland Security.

Disclosures: The author receives funding from the NOAA/National Weather Service and the Office of Naval Research.  


  1. With the current "(mis-)leadership" we have, the US is on the path to becoming an idiocrasy for sure. Perhaps the so called president can get the latest satellite data from Russia.

  2. I agree that indiscriminate cuts to NOAA and these programs don't make sense, even purely from a security standpoint, given their mission to protect life and property. Perhaps there is some wasteful spending in these areas that can be cut (I don't know). However, even as someone who is strongly in favor of federal spending cuts in general, it would be nice to see these made in a more strategic way than this. I think weather forecasting, data collection and related technology is some of the best "bang for the buck" in terms of federal spending.

    1. I did not mention this in the post due to time, but these cuts would be bad for private sector meteorology as well. As you suggest above, there is a very large return on investment when it comes to weather observing and prediction infrastructure.

  3. Yes to the NOAA's role in civilian forecasting.

    There are reasons to fund the NOAA that extend beyond the American desire to kill people in other countries with maximum efficiency.