Weather Resources Strained

By Spinner, Kate | Sarasota Herald Tribune, May 28, 2012 | Go to article overview

Weather Resources Strained


Spinner, Kate, Sarasota Herald Tribune


FORECASTING: A balancing act between observation costs and the need for data

For most people, sophisticated weather forecasts are a click away on cellphones and other devices.

But the technology behind those predictions is crumbling under the weight of budget problems, and some scientists worry that within three years, forecasts will be less accurate.

One key weather satellite died three years ago and is not being replaced. Two others are behind schedule and may not be ready before the satellites they need to replace stop working. Budget cuts in some states have eliminated weather buoys at sea and threaten to shutter ground observation networks.

The result: Forecasts could become nearly 30 percent less accurate, said Len Pietrafesa, a retired dean of the College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences at North Carolina State University. That could cost farmers, fishermen, energy companies, tourism resorts, airlines, shipping industries and other businesses billions of dollars -- and put millions of people in harm's way because of less warning for tornadoes, floods, snowstorms and hurricanes.

Said Nancy Colleton, executive director of the advocacy group Alliance for Earth Observations: "It's amazing: after 2011, where we had unprecedented natural disasters, that we're saying, 'Gosh, we hope we can maintain our current capabilities.'"

It is the first time in the nation's history that improvements in weather forecasting are limited by time and money rather than innovation, said Don Berchoff, director of science and technology for the National Weather Service.

And where technology improvements are being made, money is not available to make the best use of them. The newest satellites capture more precise weather data than the computers that interpret it can handle, and sufficient upgrades are not planned to process the information.

Even maintaining the status quo for weather observation and forecasting is going to be a challenge, said Kathy Sullivan, deputy administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The value of forecasts

Hugh Taylor, a Myakka City rancher and citrus grower, saved more hay for his cattle this year because seasonal forecasters predicted a dry spring months ago, a decision that will save him thousands of dollars.

Knowing whether fishing crews can avoid squalls at sea equates to about $10,000 -- the average payout for a week's haul of fish, said Glen Brooks, who manages a commercial fleet out of Cortez.

A study published last year by Jeffrey Lazo of the National Center for Atmospheric Research documented weather variability's economic impact. Accounting for a nice day's boost to tourism and a stormy day's destruction, weather variability accounts for 3.4 percent of U.S. economic activity: $485 billion in 2008, the year that was studied.

Forecasts also provide a $31.5 billion annual benefit, compared with the annual $5.1 billion cost of forecasting, Lazo's research showed.

NOAA, the Department of Defense and the Federal Aviation Administration maintain about 1,000 weather stations across the nation. Many more are maintained by states and academic institutions.

All face tight funding.

The University of Florida in Gainesville runs 36 of the state's weather stations at a cost of $500,000 a year, with 70 percent of that money coming from the state's water management districts. The districts have recently had their own budgets cut nearly in half.

Observations at sea also have shrunk, compared with 15 years ago, Pietrafesa said. In Southwest Florida, funding for buoys maintained by the University of South Florida dried up about five years ago. …

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