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Draft Bill Calls for Sharper Weather Focus at NOAA, More Satellite Commercialization

“Our model for weather prediction has fallen behind Europe and other parts of the world in predicting weather events in the United States,” Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah), chairman of the House Science environment subcommittee, said. Credit: Forecast the Facts photo

WASHINGTON — A draft bill in the U.S. House of Representatives would put a greater emphasis on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) operational weather forecasting activities at the expense of climate research, and create inroads for increased government use of commercial satellites and weather data. 

The bill, known as the Weather Forecasting Improvement Act of 2013, would soften a prohibition on commercializing Commerce Department weather satellites — NOAA is part of the Commerce Department — by allowing the government to purchase weather data from commercial providers and permitting government weather instruments to fly as hosted payloads aboard private satellites, or vice versa.

The bill also calls for NOAA to determine which observational data are most important for weather forecasting, and to take those findings into account before procuring new geostationary or polar-orbiting weather satellites. If the bill becomes law, NOAA would have six months from the date of passage to report to Congress on “the range of commercial opportunities for obtaining space-based weather observations, including the cost-effectiveness of these opportunities.”

“Our model for weather prediction has fallen behind Europe and other parts of the world in predicting weather events in the United States,” Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah), chairman of the House Science environment subcommittee, said during a May 23 hearing here. “This bill would establish a priority mission to improve forecasts and warnings to protect lives and property.”

The ranking Democrat on the subcommittee dismissed the idea that climate research was any less important to the public welfare than weather forecasting.

“Understanding the climate is as critical to public protection as understanding the weather,” said Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.). 

Absent from the hearing was NOAA itself. 

Bonamici said the subcommittee sent NOAA a letter on May 13 with a copy of the draft legislation and an invitation to testify at the May 23 hearing. According to Bonamici, NOAA said it did not have enough time to study the bill, prepare testimony about the proposal, and clear that testimony for public release with the White House Office of Management and Budget. 

“NOAA received the draft bill just days ago, which doesn’t provide time to form an agency opinion,” NOAA spokesman John Leslie wrote in a May 23 email.

As the hearing wrapped up, Stewart said there would soon be a follow-on hearing at which NOAA would again be invited to testify. He did not say when the hearing would be held. 

One of the two witnesses at the hearing made a case for a greater private-sector role in weather forecasting. 

“Overall procurement reform is needed,” said Jon Kirchner, president and chief operating officer of GeoOptics, a Pasadena, Calif.-based company preparing to deploy a constellation of low Earth orbit satellites to gather atmospheric density, pressure, moisture and temperature data through a method known as GPS radio occultation. Invoking NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services program that turned international space station cargo deliveries over to private operators, Kirchner recommended the government do likewise for weather data. 

NOAA should “implement procurement reform by creating new performance-based pay on delivery data purchase procurement models that enable federal agencies to immediately contract for services they need now from private companies that can provide them,” Kirchner said.

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