Hurricane Sandy has everyone’s attention, especially along the east coast, which isn’t surprising given the satellite imagery and computer models that put it crashing into the Atlantic coast between Maryland and Massachusetts. But back while things were quiet on the hurricane front — last February — people were thinking about them.
For starters, NOAA’s director Jane Lubchenco had this to say when the Obama administration’s FY 2013 budget was put forward:
Science is at the heart of NOAA’s services and stewardship. A more accurate hurricane track forecast today is the result of smart research investments of the past. Putting America’s fishing industry on a sustainable and profitable path depends on investments in the best fisheries science. NOAA’s science enhances our understanding of and ability to predict changes in the Earth’s environment, an increasingly crucial role given the economic and environmental challenges we face. NOAA is making key investments in the next generation of research and informational products to protect our environment, enhance our security, and spur economic recovery. This budget provides necessary investments to improve our understanding of climate processes and support research that will help fuel a clean energy economy.
We must remember the significant contribution NOAA makes to growing a strong economy that is built to last. Just as every citizen depends on NOAA for his or her weather information, from the five-day forecast to life-saving weather alerts, so too do businesses rely on NOAA. Fishermen trust NOAA’s nautical charts and check tides and currents information before heading to sea. Farmers depend on our long-range forecasts to determine what crops to plant and when. Using NOAA services, airlines save millions of dollars by keeping planes and personnel from being stranded in bad weather. Marine shipping companies, which transport 90 percent of the goods into and out of the United States, rely on NOAA to keep our ports operating safely. For coastal communities, NOAA’s stewardship of our fisheries, coasts and oceans is vital to their prosperity. And the list goes on and on. It is hard to imagine a sector of the economy that does not depend on NOAA in some way or another.
Even with such a strong mission, Lubchenco and Obama came under fire from Paul Broun (R-GA) who sits on the House Committee on Science and Technology (along with Todd Akin) for proposing a 2% cut to NOAA’s budget:
Broun blasts NOAA and Obama for a proposed 2 percent budget cut to the NWS budget in 2013, a move that would “remove one employee from each of the 122 weather forecasting offices,” he writes. “The administration continues to sacrifice weather forecasting for other NOAA priorities…[which] could have a significant impact on lives and property.”
Meanwhile, Broun doesn’t mention that the Paul Ryan budget, favored by many conservatives in Congress, would cut funding for “Natural Resources and Environment” spending, including for NOAA and NWS, by 14.6 percent by 2014.
That’s a pretty big “meanwhile.” From Brad Plummer at the Washington Post last March:
I asked Third Way’s budget expert David Kendall if he could update some of his numbers for Ryan’s budget. Under Ryan’s plan, for instance, spending on transportation would be 26.1 percent lower in 2014 than it is today. If that size cut was applied to, say, air-traffic control programs, Kendall notes, “there would be 3,092 more flight cancellations and 68,683 delays annually. At the U.S. average of 49 passengers per flight, that’s enough to strand 151,503 more people at the gate and make 3,365,685 more people late every year.”
Likewise, spending on natural resources and the environment would be 14.6 percent lower under Ryan’s budget in 2014 than it is today. Assuming those cuts hit all programs in this category equally — and, again, this is for illustration purposes — then this is how it would affect weather forecasting. “Our weather forecasts would be only half as accurate for four to eight years until another polar satellite is launched,” estimates Kendall. “For many people planning a weekend outdoors, they may have to wait until Thursday for a forecast as accurate as one they now get on Monday. … Perhaps most affected would be hurricane response. Governors and mayors would have to order evacuations for areas twice as large or wait twice as long for an accurate forecast.”
Paul Ryan seems to view the weather like Chuck Todd used to do — it’s interesting, but not news and not important. Some in the GOP are reflexively anti-science, and so cutting science from the budget is no big deal. Climate change deniers don’t want anyone collecting any data that might possibly prove them wrong. But to their constituents — of both parties and neither party — watching and dealing with the weather is critical to their businesses and in weeks like this, critical to their lives and the lives of their communities. (Did you know that Home Depot has staffers whose job is dedicated to watching the weather forecasts, to help them make sure they’ve got the right supplies in the right stores to sell at the right time?)
[It's not just hurricanes, by the way. While the National Hurricane Center is watching Sandy, NOAA and the USDA are watching every square inch of the high plains states suffer through drought conditions, with South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma in the midst of an ongoing "exceptional drought" -- the worst category of drought. Here in Missouri, the drought continues, though not at the same exceptional level.]
My son has never known a time before the Weather Channel and computer models plotted on the television screen. I, on the other hand, am old enough to remember hurricanes before there was a Weather Channel, when satellites were new, and when computer models were crude and laborious. I had relatives caught in Hurricane Camille, which changed the way researchers looked at hurricanes.
As you ride out Hurricane Sandy, or watch others ride it out, remember this: Paul “Austerity Rocks!” Ryan and company seem to want to return us to those days when forecasting was crude and dangers worse. I’m not thrilled with the NOAA budget that Obama put forward last February, but it’s a damn sight better than what Ryan and the GOP want to do.
Maybe someone could ask Paul Ryan what he thinks about NOAA now.
image h/t NOAA’s National Hurricane Center. This is their projected path as of 11AM EDT on October 27th.