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Storm Clouds Ahead: Budget Cuts Threaten Severe Weather Forecasts

oklahoma tornado
The Moore, Okla. tornado touching down in Oklahoma City on May 20, 2013. (Image credit: Screengrab CNN)

The tornado that hit Moore, Okla., on Monday (May 23) killed an estimated two dozen people and caused devastating property damage. Residents had advance warning of the storm, thanks to weather forecasts. But with forced budget cuts in effect, forecasters may not be adequately prepared for future natural disasters.

In March, $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts, known as the sequester, took effect. The cuts slashed 8.2 percent from the 2013 operating budgets of most federal agencies. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) suffered a 7 percent reduction in its fiscal year 2013 budget as a result of sequestration. Thinned-out staffs and under-maintained equipment could hinder the agency's ability to give timely and accurate weather forecasts, experts say.

"It really highlights the game of chicken we're playing with the nation's safety," said J. Marshall Shepherd, president of the American Meteorological Society. [Image Gallery: Moore, Okla., Tornado Damage]

Furloughs and cutbacks

Like many government agencies, NOAA is considering implementing agencywide furloughs, or mandatory leave days. The agency has proposed up to four furlough days per employee through Sept. 30, 2013.

"NOAA and the National Weather Service are facing furloughs particularly as we're entering the hurricane and dry weather seasons," Shepherd said. National Weather Service (NWS) offices are already short-staffed, and now there's a hiring freeze, Shepherd said. (Hurricane season officially starts on June 1 and ends on Nov. 30.)

Deputy Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank wrote in a Feb. 8 letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee that if the sequester went through, up to 2,600 NOAA employees would be furloughed (by as much as 6.5 days), about 2,700 positions would remain unfilled and there would be about 1,400 fewer contractors.

Sequestration will limit hurricane reconnaissance flights by NOAA aircraft, and the maintenance and operations of the national radar network and weather-monitoring systems, the Capital Weather Gang reported. These could result in longer service outages, such as telecommunications outages, or restrict forecasters' access to weather data.

"We have to see weather forces the same way as we see National Security," Shepherd said. "Weather affects lives and property and our economy."

Under the tightened budget, travel restrictions are preventing weather scientists from attending scientific conferences where they can stay current on the latest forecasting science and interact with the emergency responder community. Dialogue between forecasters and emergency responders is critical, Shepherd said.

Aging equipment

The budget cuts will also make it harder to maintain weather forecasting equipment. Many of the country's weather satellites are aging and due for replacement. Yesterday (May 23), the GOES-13 satellite (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite), which covers much of eastern North America and the western Atlantic, stopped working. The GOES-14 backup satellite was activated, but if that fails, there is no replacement. NOAA is currently investigating the reason for the failure.

The sequester could delay the production and deployment of two new weather satellites, the GOES-R series, by two to three years, Blank wrote in her letter to Congress. The first two GOES-R satellites are scheduled to launch in 2015 and 2017.

The geosynchronous satellites could go the way of NOAA's polar-orbiting satellites, whose development is well over-budget and behind schedule.

Failure to replace old satellites could lead to a "satellite gap." In February, the Government Accountability Office featured a satellite gap in its list of the top 30 challenges facing the federal government.

A gathering storm

The impact of budget cuts on the country's forecasting systems takes on added urgency in times of severe weather like the Moore tornado.

The NWS's Norman, Okla., office issued a warning about the tornado 16 minutes before it formed — three minutes more than the average tornado warning time. Forecasters knew several days before the tornado hit that the weather would be bad that day because they had been monitoring the approaching weather system on satellite and radar.

If these services suffer because of reduced personnel or maintenance, the impacts could be dire — not just for predicting tornados, but for hurricanes and other severe weather events as well. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy brought home the seriousness of extreme weather, and NOAA is forecasting an active hurricane season in 2013.

"The sequester impacts are happening now," Shepherd said. "Unfortunately, it often takes tragedy to wake people up to these dangers."

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Tanya Lewis
Tanya was a staff writer for Live Science from 2013 to 2015, covering a wide array of topics, ranging from neuroscience to robotics to strange/cute animals. She received a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a bachelor of science in biomedical engineering from Brown University. She has previously written for Science News, Wired, The Santa Cruz Sentinel, the radio show Big Picture Science and other places. Tanya has lived on a tropical island, witnessed volcanic eruptions and flown in zero gravity (without losing her lunch!). To find out what her latest project is, you can visit her website.