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Senate Approves Schatz-Thune Weather Forecasting Reforms

Passage Comes After House and Senate Negotiators Reach Deal for Provisions to Become Law

WASHINGTON The U.S. Senate last night, approved H.R. 1561, the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2016, by unanimous consent with a Senate amendment. The bill as amended, which leaders of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation and the House Science Committee negotiated, adds other weather forecasting and research reform provisions from three bills (S. 1331, S. 1573, and H.R. 34), including reforms championed by U.S. Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawai‘i), Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.), and House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas).

“This legislation opens the way for better outcomes when severe weather hits our communities,” said Senator Schatz. “The bill strengthens the science to forecast severe heat and cold, storms, tornadoes, tsunamis, draughts, floods, and hurricanes so that our warnings are more timely and accurate. The bill also improves how the government communicates these threats to the public, so that families and businesses can stay safe and be prepared so that they can recover quicker. We cannot stop a tsunami or a hurricane, but better forecasts and better warnings will save lives and livelihoods.”

“These reforms will help ensure that Americans benefit from advancements in weather forecasting and make federal forecasters better stewards of taxpayer dollars,” said Senator Thune. “From long-term forecasting that can prevent costly agricultural losses to more actionable information about severe weather, this legislation will help save lives and reduce avoidable property loss.” 

“This important bipartisan legislation will greatly improve our nation’s weather forecasting and allow NOAA to harness the growing potential of the commercial weather industry to save lives and property," said Representative Smith. “I'm proud to stand behind legislation that strengthens science while simultaneously fostering new research and programs to provide critical weather data.” 

Highlights of H.R. 1561 as approved by the U.S. Senate:

Seasonal forecasting – Directs the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and its component agency the National Weather Service (NWS) to create usable, reliable, and timely subseasonal and seasonal forecasts, and determine the impact of these forecasts on a variety of other weather conditions. Through an authorization of $26.5 million out of funds appropriated to NWS through fiscal year 2018, the legislation anticipates significant improvements in usable and reliable forecasts for time periods of 2 weeks to 2 years. This improvement in forecasting would, for example, allow farmers to make more informed decisions about when and what to plant. 

Forecast communication – Requires the NWS to designate at least one employee in each of the established 122 weather forecast offices as the warning coordination meteorologist. Even when forecasters accurately predict dangerous weather events, preventable deaths, injuries, and property loss occur due to shortcomings in communications about what is happening and what at-risk populations should do. Warning coordination meteorologists will focus on the regional area covered by the weather forecast office and work with local officials, media, and other channels to maximize the usefulness and effectiveness of emergency communications.

Tornado and hurricane forecasting – Focuses on forecasting improvements and new research into extreme weather events. Establishes a tornado warning improvement and extension program for federal cooperation with private sector and academic partners to focus on developing and extending accurate tornado forecasts and warnings beyond one hour. It also creates a similar collaboration program for improving hurricane forecasting and communication of storm surges.

Tsunami warning – Authorizes NOAA to put tsunami sensors onto commercial and federal telecommunications cables as a cost-effective improvement to the tsunami detection network and study and research efforts of tsunamis. Also authorizes grant funding to survey for “paleotsunamis”—evidence of devastating waves in prehistoric times, or periods before records were kept.  By understanding past threats, communities can prepare better for future disasters.

Satellite governance – Reforms NOAA’s satellite procurement efforts by requiring consideration of existing systems and the overall cost of integrating new ones. The reform comes after the agency experienced costly difficulties in integrating new equipment with current ground and space systems. The bill further requires NOAA to enter into a pilot program contract to assess the private sector’s capabilities in providing weather data.  

Contracting disclosures – Addresses concerns about agency employees abusing the contracting process to enrich themselves with lucrative post-retirement contracts. The bill requires the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to annually disclose information about full-time equivalent contractors and those who formerly worked at the agency as federal employees.

The legislation, which the House must also approve before it is sent to the White House for signature, does not propose closure of any NWS facilities. Click here for a copy of H.R. 1561, as amended by the Thune substitute and also an amendment from Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash,) added to the legislation.