Disturbing News on the Hurricane Forecasting Front

15 04 2015

Photo-Hurricane KatrinaSo in my last blog entry, I encouraged taking hurricane preparedness activities for those that live in Fort Bend County; it is that time of the year, June 1st is the official start of the 2015 Hurricane Season.  It is important because the last hurricane strike in our region was back in 2008 when Hurricane Ike devastated Galveston County.

People have become apathetic about hurricane preparedness because they don’t really remember Hurricane Ike; and they don’t remember how bad it really was for many living in our region.  How soon we forget.

Then I turned to my latest issue of Disaster Research News published by the University of Colorado at Boulder. From its April 10th edition, Jolie Breeden provides information on some cuts to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration budget that will reduce hurricane forecasting capabilities in the future.  I find these cuts disturbing.

Sure, examples of major hurricanes making landfall in the United States are not readily available from recent years— but the threat still exists—- and will continue to exist. Perhaps no major hurricanes will make landfall in the United States this year or next year; but it is simply a matter of time.  It is a question of “when” and not “if.”  And, when the next major hurricane makes landfall in the United States (and hopefully not in the Houston Urban Area), there will be questions about why the hurricane forecasting budget was slashed in 2015.  Here is Breeden’s article:

The Most Unkindest Cut: Hurricane Forecasting Takes a Hit

Jolie Breeden

It’s sometimes wise to stop while ahead, although probably not in the area of improving hurricane forecasts. Still, it seems the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has chosen to do just that with a nearly $10 million cut to its Hurricane Forecasting Improvement Program.

The cut, which represents nearly two-thirds of the program budget, was announced this month during a presentation at the National Hurricane Conference in Austin, Texas. According to presentation materials, the dearth of funds will likely result in a focus on more immediate forecasts (as opposed to 7-day forecasting goals), elimination of global modeling efforts, a reduction in funding to academic partners, and fewer real-time experimental products.

While the magnitude of the cut and the program elements affected are alarming, the National Weather Service’s Chris Vaccaro told Slate the outlook wasn’t entirely bleak.

“It’s important to emphasize that there is still funding for HFIP, work is still being done and advancements will continue to be made,” Vaccaro said, pointing to additional $4 million for super-computing that isn’t included in the cut.

Even so, scientists are concerned that hobbling the successful program—in five years the HFIP has made impressive advancements in both hurricane tracking and intensity forecasts—will have a chilling effect.

“It would be a shame to radically reduce this effort when gains seem to be in reach,” Bill Read, former director of the National Hurricane Center told the Washington Post. “While some improvements in the science of intensity forecasting may be attributed to HFIP over the past several years, more work is needed.”

Others point to the defunding as a myopic solution that will cost the United States more than it saves in the long run.

“Undeniably hurricane track improvement translates to lives and dollars saved,” Marshall Shepherd told Slate. “It is shortsighted to stunt this progress and hinder potential improvement in intensity forecasts. We can’t continue to be a culture that cuts progress, then panics only after a horrific tragedy.”

Lack of recent tragedy is perhaps one reason making the cut more palatable. It’s been nearly ten years since a Category 3 or stronger storm made landfall in the United States. Without the momentum of a recent disaster driving need, it can be hard to secure funding and prove program effectiveness.

Regardless of the will to continue funding at adequate levels, the NOAA budget (skip to page 758 for a quick access) clearly states the impacts of decreased support for the HFIP—coastal communities could experience unnecessary evacuations, NOAA’s reputation among the research community is at risk, and lagging improvement in HFIP models could affect a number of forecasting products.

But most of all, as University Corporation for Atmospheric Research President Tom Bogdan points out in an editorial that champions forecast funding in general, the biggest risks are those that cascade from not making long-term investments in much-needed science.

“The growing ability to forecast the weather plays a significant role in protecting our homeland, our businesses, our infrastructure and most importantly, our families and communities,” he wrote. “We need to continue to ensure that our society is prepared to meet the challenges and dangers of living inside Earth’s dynamic atmosphere.”

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