J. Marshall Shepherd and John Knox, both meteorological experts at the University of Georgia, have turned this op-ed noting that Hurricane Sandy is being tracked by a U.S. climate-and-weather network – largely funded by the federal government – that is coming under increasing financial pressure:
In the waning weeks of hurricane season, nature continues to provide tricks rather than treats. Hurricane Sandy, a storm with the lowest central pressure of the 2012 hurricane season, is bearing down on the East Coast of the United States.
The trick is determining the extent of meteorological, societal, and political impacts from Hurricane Sandy as it transitions to a mega-Halloween storm. Campaign activities have been altered in key states, early voting may be affected, and sustained power outages could linger through Election Day. Here, in Georgia, the coldest temperatures of the season will appear this week in response to the storm as well.
“Frankenstorm,” the name handed Sandy by the media, will interact with a weather system moving east toward it and poses difficult challenges for forecasters. It also has the potential to create unprecedented weather conditions for the East Coast.
What would a megastorm look like? It could be a so-called “perfect” storm, but worse than its October 1991 namesake, with hurricane-strength winds, drenching rains, severe coastal flooding and even heavy snow impacting the populous mid-Atlantic and northeast corridor.
How do we know this megastorm could happen? Advances in numerical weather forecasting during the past several decades have extended our ability to see into the future. In September 1938, before all of these advances, a hurricane devastated Long Island and much of New England. No hurricane warnings were ever issued prior to its arrival. Today, thanks to satellites, weather balloons, supercomputers and skilled forecasters, we are often able to anticipate hazardous weather up to a week in advance.
The computer forecast models are in consensus on the megastorm diagnosis at the time of this writing. The chance that the storm will treat us to a deviation out to sea is increasingly unlikely. But while we wait, the various scenarios provide a backdrop for addressing some critical issues facing the field of weather-climate analysis, as well as the safety and economic interests of U.S. citizens.
Recently, GOES-13, the United States’ main weather satellite monitoring the Eastern Seaboard and Atlantic/Gulf of Mexico hurricane basin, experienced technical difficulties and was taken offline. Luckily, a “spare” satellite was in orbit and was able to provide seamless coverage until GOES-13 was reinstated.
What if we didn’t have that spare? Or what if budget pressures were setting up the real possibility of significant gaps in satellite coverage in the coming five to 10 years? These are not hypothetical questions. The National Research Council recently called attention to the consequences of a degrading or waning research and operational satellite fleet.
While satellites provide a watchful eye on the storm, computer models are essential for predicting where the storm is going and how strong it will be. Many National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA satellite data sets are fed into models and provide essential input. Hurricane track forecasts have significantly improved in the past 40 years. However, intensity forecasts are still imperfect.
Even with Sandy, there were unexpected ebbs and flows in intensity in the Caribbean Sea. Policymakers must continue to adequately support satellite, aircraft, and observational capacity. Such investments pay for themselves multi-fold through saved lives, property, and dollars from needless evacuations and other planning costs. The best estimates are that taxpayers reap $5 or more from every $1 spent on weather forecasts.
We must also continue to ensure that our world-class weather modeling centers have the necessary funding and manpower to implement the most advanced modeling and data assimilation techniques. Numerical weather forecasting was invented in the United States, but today other countries have extremely capable modeling capacity.
In Great Britain, the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts was targeting an East Coast landfall days ahead of the best American model. With the appropriate resources, the U.S. could firmly establish itself as the leader in weather forecasting and increase our lead time for weather disaster preparation, if the public and political will exists to do so. The cost would be peanuts compared to most other government programs. The entire budget of the National Weather Service—everything and everyone, from computers to carpet—is less than $1 billion per year.
Improvements in track forecasting, intensity changes, and storm genesis often come from collaborations among the government, private sector, and academia. Scientific meetings are key forums to share scientific research, vet new methodologies, and forge new partnerships.
Yet, recently, our federal meteorologists and other scientists have been denied access to such meetings due to budget or administrative mandates. Even worse, some have suggested scientific meetings are a waste of taxpayer dollars. It is reasonable to ask how well we would be able to predict or assess a storm like Sandy without the knowledge and capacity gained through meetings held by the American Meteorological Society or the National Weather Association.
So as Sandy bears down on the U.S., key issues confronting the weather-climate enterprise are on the table. Most taxpayers clearly recognize the impact that weather events like Sandy and the “ghost” of Sandy megastorm can have on life, property, and the economy. In austere times, it is critical that neither required fiscal discipline nor short-sightedness jeopardize U.S. citizens. We should not let an obsession with penny-pinching trick us into thinking that a penny saved on weather forecasts is a penny earned. Instead, it is nickels and dimes and dollars lost, as well as lives lost. Let’s treat ourselves to a safer future instead.
Marshall Shepherd is a professor of geography and director of the atmospheric sciences program at the University of Georgia and president-elect of the American Meteorological Society. John Knox is an associate professor of geography and a recipient of the National Weather Association’s highest research award, the T. Theodore Fujita Research Achievement Award.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider