We Need To Expand the National Weather Service To Provide More Climate Services

Photo: National Hurricane Center

By Monica Medina, Founder and CEO of Our Daily Planet

Earlier this year, I drafted a chapter for a book of “big” new environmental ideas entitled “A Better Planet: Forty Big Ideas for a Sustainable Future.”  In my essay, I propose that in order to brace ourselves for the impacts of climate change that we know we will face in the future, we should expand the size and capacity of the National Weather Service to create and deliver the new services and products needed to adequately prepare for climate change events. Indeed, the NOAA Science Advisory Board in May 2009 in a report entitled “Options for Creating a National Climate Service” argued that a combined weather and climate service would provide a single, authoritative government voice on climate, which could be built quickly from existing components of the NWS, and provide users “one-stop shopping” for a full spectrum of weather and climate products.  I believe it is time to give this idea serious consideration again.

It is well known that we are spending more federal funds to recover from disasters like Hurricanes Maria, Harvey and Dorian, the wildfires in California, and floods in the midwest, not to mention more “routine” droughts, storm surge events, and tornadoes.  In 2018 Congress passed a new law, the Disaster Reform Act, to allow the emergency management community to continue to improve the way we deliver assistance before, during and after disasters.  The Congress drastically increased funding to prepare for disasters and even created a”revolving” Disaster Relief Fund from a six percent set aside of post-disaster expenses.  This is good news.

Congress enacted this new funding after a recent study showed that by preparing — by undertaking actions that mitigate natural disasters — we can save $6 of post-disaster response money on average for every $1 spent on federal mitigation, according to an analysis by the National Institute of Building Sciences.  But all this funding begs the question, what should we be mitigating for? How can we best adapt to climate change? That is precisely why we need additional federally-provided climate-change-related forecasts, predictions, and warnings over and above first-responder preparedness funding for the emergency managers.

The risks we face going forward will vary by geographic region, by economic sectors, and by the socio-economic status of the people experiencing them. In order to meet these challenges, the National Weather Service, whose primary mission is to provide weather data, forecasts out to 14 days, and severe weather warnings for the protection of life and property and enhancement of the national economy will need a significant upgrade. Its operations, global observations, data gathering systems, and its human resources must be expanded and revitalized.

I believe that the National Weather Service is currently stretched too thin to take on this expanded and important mission — it is understaffed for it, it has suffered in recent years from underfunding, and it lacks sufficient authority to adequately perform this expanded mission going forward. For our nation to be truly climate AND weather-ready, the Weather Service for the 21st century must be able to educate and warn the public about the full spectrum of increasingly extreme storms, flooding, drought, fire, health, and ecological disasters through the provision of improved short, medium and long term forecasts of weather and climate-related events and trends.

Indeed, to be truly prepared, any significant infrastructure spending or climate adaptation program must take this increased vulnerability to climate-related severe weather into account when prioritizing and planning for the future — we need more accurate and detailed severe weather and climate information in order to effectively and efficiently undertake these changes. The case of Hurricane Sandy is instructive. When Hurricane Sandy slammed into lower Manhattan in 2012, it badly damaged two tunnels that connect Manhattan to Brooklyn and Queens. They both filled with water, damaging their electrical and lighting systems. Removing the water required quick and sophisticated engineering work—it was not simply a matter of pumping out the seawater as that would have risked collapsing the tunnels completely. At the time, engineers were shocked that New York City had not done far more to safeguard its tunnels given that they knew of the risks of rising seas and extreme weather associated with climate change. We cannot afford in the future to be this vulnerable all along our coastline, much less in major cities like New York, Boston, Jacksonville or Miami.

In fact, expanded climate services will likely achieve societal benefits that we do not even foresee today. For example, they could help save lives by allowing us to prevent illnesses and diseases that are likely to increase with warming (such as Zika and Lyme Disease) by using climate and weather prediction capabilities to anticipate health threats. These services could also enhance and expand the United States’ growing green economy by optimizing the site selection, infrastructure design, and operations for solar and wind energy systems and the power grid. Finally, with a better understanding of climate change, we could limit its impacts on natural resources and agriculture through crop rotation or other response strategies that enable farmers and foresters to respond to existing invasive species and prepare for new invasions.

The cost of the expanded National Weather and Climate Service would likely be in the billions to plan and establish and could increase the current yearly costs of the NWS by two times—perhaps to as much as $2.5 billion annually. But this cost is a drop in the bucket compared to the expense of the green infrastructure investments that need to be made in the coming decades at the municipal, state, and federal levels, much less all our spending post-disasters.  And it will likely save thousands of lives and billions of dollars in wasteful or ineffective expenditures that would be made without the benefit of this vital climate information.  In short, it’s an idea whose time has come and one that all Americans should support.

Author’s Note: If you would like more information about “A Better Planet,” click here.  

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