Obama Backs Weather Funding in Opening Bid

April 23, 2013 · 2 comments

by George Leopold, AMS Policy Program

While it remains far from clear whether the Obama administration will gain final congressional approval, its fiscal 2014 budget request released earlier this month does contain small increases for improving weather forecasting and climate research.

The White House budget request also reveals early attempts by science agencies to collaborate more closely in areas like Earth observation and climate research.

Given the pervasive uncertainty over federal spending–for instance, across-the-board budget cuts known as “sequestration” began to bite this week with the furloughs of U.S. air traffic controllers–the administration’s proposed $200 million increase for NOAA and the National Weather Service is welcome. It also indicates that NOAA’s core functions remain a budget priority for federal bean counters.

If approved–and at this point that’s a big if–NOAA’s fiscal 2014 budget would top out at $5.45 billion. That’s about $200 million more than the amount approved for this year. If nothing else, the administration’s opening bid in negotiations over NOAA’s budget is higher than some stakeholders expected.

Acting NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan said in a statement that the agency’s FY14 budget request seeks to: “1) ensure the readiness, responsiveness, and resiliency of communities from coast to coast; 2) help protect lives and property; and, 3) support vibrant coastal communities and economies.”

Not surprisingly, Sullivan emphasized NOAA’s role last October in preparing for and responding to Hurricane Sandy. We’ll be hearing a lot more in upcoming budget debates about the need to continue investing in core NOAA functions like environmental monitoring.

Indeed, the lion’s share of NOAA’s budget request for next year–about $2.2 billion–goes to its National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service, or NESDIS, which operates most U.S. weather satellites. A key issue is whether NESDIS can shorten an expected gap in the coverage of its polar-orbiting weather satellites. Even with a budget increase, however modest, it remains unclear whether the first Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS-1) can be launched in time to reduce a coverage gap that, according to recent estimates, could last up to 53 months.

The design lifetime of the current Suomi NPP weather satellite is expected to end in 2016. According to NESDIS officials, NOAA remains on track to launch JPSS-1 during the first quarter of 2018. Additional funding in fiscal 2014 could reportedly speed up the launch of JPSS-2 to 2021.

Another priority is beefing up the National Weather Service’s supercomputer and networking infrastructure to improve its weather forecasting models as well as its climate research. According to budget documents, funding for climate research would increase to $143 million, with the overall funding request for NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research increasing to about $390 million.

Expect to also hear a lot more about collaboration as agencies like NOAA look to do more with less. To that end, NOAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems office is seeking an additional $2 million next year to acquire more low-mileage drones from the U.S. military “to accelerate next-generation weather observing platforms.”

Meanwhile, NASA’s fiscal 2014 budget request of $17.7 billion is $50 million below what the space agency received last year. Despite the reductions, the budget request does include $1.8 billion for Earth science programs such as Landsat and climate sensors for JPSS.

NASA said its budget request also includes funding to take over from NOAA responsibility for “key observations of the Earth’s climate,” including atmospheric ozone, solar irradiance, and energy radiated into space. Under the budget plan, the space agency would also “steward” two Earth observation sensors on NOAA’s space weather mission, Deep Space Climate Observatory, currently scheduled for launch in 2014.

Agency heads will begin defending their fiscal 2014 budget requests this week. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden is scheduled to testify on April 25 before the Senate Appropriations Committee panel overseeing space agency spending.

NOAA’s Sullivan is scheduled to appear before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on April 23.