Right before Hurricane Harvey came barreling down on Texas, residents had a few days to prepare. That's thanks to the sophisticated forecasts of the National Hurricane Center, which is now scrambling to figure out where Hurricane Irma will make landfall in the US. But if the budget cuts that President Donald Trump has requested are implemented, the agencies that give people vital time to get ready for a massive storm will have their budgets slashed — making weather forecasting vulnerable.
The president’s budget proposal calls for a whopping 17 percent cut to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). It also calls for trimming 6 percent of the budget for the National Weather Service (NWS), the NOAA agency in charge of providing forecasts for life-threatening weather events like hurricanes. Along with cuts to climate research, satellites, and other weather-related programs, the cuts will put a big strain on the forecasters we’re currently relying on to get ready as Irma grows into a monster storm.
And getting forecasts right is literally a matter of life or death. “People are going to have an experience with the storm, and if you’re telling them, the storm is going to hit you and it doesn’t hit them, they’re not going to trust you the next time you make a forecast,” says Neal Dorst, at NOAA’s Hurricane Research Division. “It’s a matter of confidence. If you’re going to issue an evacuation order, you want people to take that seriously.” (Dorst declined to comment on the proposed budget cuts.)
Understanding how we track hurricanes may help explain why it can be expensive. Information about a storm — when it forms, how strong its winds are, where it’s going — come from a mix of satellites, reconnaissance aircraft called the Hurricane Hunters, buoys, and land-based radars, says Dorst. All this information is then fed into very powerful computer models that predict where a hurricane is going. The NWS runs a forecasting model called the Global Forecast System, or GFS, but Europe, the UK, Japan, Canada, and even the US Navy have their own models. “You run all these different models and you get a variety of forecasts,” Dorst tells The Verge. Specialists at the National Hurricane Center then sort through all these different predictions and make a subjective determination on where the storm is headed.
The GFS has gotten “tremendously better” over the past 10 to 15 years, says Dave Titley, a meteorologist and director of the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk at Penn State. When Titley used to do typhoon forecasting for the US Navy in the 1980s, he says it was not unusual for a three-day forecast to be off by 1,000 miles. “Now, people get mad if your three-day forecast is off by 150 miles,” Titley says. Weather forecasting has gotten better in part because we have better satellites and better computers, but the GFS still lags behind the European model in terms of accuracy.
In 2009, NOAA launched the Hurricane Forecast Improvement Program to improve the accuracy of its forecasts, especially in regards to a storm’s intensity — but funds for the program have been dwindling. The budget was $13 million in 2009 but it’s been shrunk to less than half that, according to The Associated Press. And the Trump administration’s looming budget cuts don’t bode well.
The budget proposal slashes almost $64 million from the National Weather Service — 6 percent of its budget. That may mean jobs won’t be replaced when people leave, effectively shrinking the staff, says Scott Weaver, a senior climate scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, who previously worked at the NWS Climate Prediction Center for seven years. Weaver says the forecast office is already short staffed, which obviously puts more pressure on the workforce, especially at times like this when forecasters are tracking three hurricanes in the Atlantic.
“To me, it’s perhaps not as dramatic, but it’s along the lines of air traffic controllers,” Weaver says. “You don’t want to have a stressed air traffic controller working environment because they’re in charge of flights.”
The proposed budget cuts will also directly hurt the NWS’s ability to improve the GFS and its overall forecasting system, including flood forecasting — keeping the US behind Europe and other countries when it comes to predicting strong storms and their effects. That’s not all. The agency exists within NOAA, which also faces a 17 percent budget reduction under the proposal. That includes huge cuts to climate research, which informs how weather events occur. (Harvey was made more deadly because of climate change.) It would also reduce marine observations that help us detect and predict events like El Niño, which affect weather patterns. Funding for satellites, like the geostationary satellites the NWS uses to track storms, would also be reduced.
“That’s a smokescreen,” Weaver says of the 6 percent cut. "That’s just to make it look like we’re not really cutting the National Weather Service. But you are. You’re cutting off their tools and the way that they would develop better tools in the future.”
The president’s budget proposal is still only a proposal. Both the House and the Senate will ultimately decide how funds should be appropriated; the two legislative bodies don't yet agree on cuts. “The President proposes, but the Congress disposes,” Titley says. And he says he’s “cautiously optimistic” that lawmakers will not approve such big cuts to NOAA. The minor budget reductions — like the 6 percent cuts to the NWS — might pass under the radar. But the very active hurricane season we’re experiencing might serve as a reminder of the invaluable work that forecasters do.
Ultimately, their work is to protect life and property, and to minimize the economic damage of storms. “It’s not a Democrat or a Republican issue,” Titley says. “I’ve seen broad support across the political spectrum for that.”