May 3, 2011

Tornado forecasting cuts


In March NOAA said the GOP's proposed satellite funding cuts could halve the accuracy of precipitation forecasts.  

On Thursday, as the search for survivors continued in devastated communities across Alabama and other southern states pummeled this week by massiveterrifying tornadoes,  President Obama said "we can't control when or where a terrible storm may strike, but we can control how we respond to it." Unfortunately, thanks to the spending bill orchestrated by the GOP-controlled House of Representatives, he couldn't say we are doing everything in our power to protect Americans from future extreme weather events. Events that are becoming ever more frequent, as CAP's Daniel J. Weiss and Valeri Vasquez pointed out in a report and interactive map released Friday.

The Associated Press characterized the number of fatalities from these storms –more than 340 as of Saturday — as something that "seems out of a bygone era, before Doppler radar and pinpoint satellite forecasts were around to warn communities of severe weather. Residents were told the tornadoes were coming up to 24 minutes ahead of time, but they were just too wide, too powerful and too locked onto populated areas to avoid a horrifying body count."

It is precisely those "pinpoint satellite forecasts" that Congress, including every member of Alabama's delegation, decided were luxuries America cannot afford when it passed the continuing resolution to keep the government operating for the remainder of the fiscal year.
As we have discussed in previous posts, this action eliminated funding to replace the environmental satellites that help make our forecasts a reality. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has stated in no uncertain terms that these aging satellites will fail, and our failure to buy new ones this year will cause at least an 18 month gap in coverage.

Clearly, Congressional Republicans were more interested in protecting the $5.5 billion in subsidies and foregone royalty payments for Big Oil—which collectively reported a total of more than $30 billion in first quarter profits this week—than they were in spending the $700 million necessary to literally save the lives of their constituents.

This week's news stories about these disasters are full of harrowing accounts of narrow escapes made possible by timely, accurate forecasting that provided nearly half an hour's advance warning that these massive tornadoes were on the way. And still, at least 340 people have been killed and countless others injured.

"It is sobering to us to see that tornadoes in the 21st century can still cause so many deaths," said Joshua Wurman, the president of the Center for Severe Weather Research. "We had hoped that through increased warnings, better buildings and increased public awareness, the years of these events had passed."

We now know that the events themselves have not passed—on the contrary, it is more likely that these events will only continue to grow more intense and more frequent. Apparently, the only thing that has passed is our willingness to pay the cost of the accurate predictions that saved innumerable lives across the south earlier this week.

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