Senate Approves Negotiated Weather Reform Bill with Amendments

Legislative agreement addresses concerns that blocked passage in December

March 30, 2017

WASHINGTON – Last night, by unanimous consent, the U.S. Senate approved the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2017 as amended by changes pre-negotiated with House science leaders. The amendments, offered by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), clear a path to enactment of the bill carrying core seasonal forecasting, forecast communication, and other proposals first put forward by Thune and Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawai'i).

“From long-term forecasting that can prevent costly agricultural losses to more actionable information about severe weather, this legislation will help save lives and reduce avoidable property loss,” said Thune. “Thanks to a bipartisan resiliency in both the House and Senate, we now have an agreement to send the bill to the President’s desk."

“Better weather forecasts and better warnings will save lives and livelihood,” said Schatz. “Our bill strengthens the science to forecast severe heat and cold, storms, tornadoes, tsunamis, and hurricanes, helping us make our warnings more timely and accurate.  It also improves how the government communicates these threats to the public, so that families and businesses can be prepared and stay safe.”

Highlights of H.R. 353 as amended by the Senate:  

Seasonal forecasting – Directs the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and its component agency the National Weather Service (NWS) to create usable, reliable, and timely subseasonal and seasonal forecasts, and determine the impact of these forecasts. Through an authorization of $26.5 million out of funds appropriated to NWS through fiscal year 2018, the legislation lays the groundwork for significant improvements in usable and reliable forecasts for time periods of 2 weeks to 2 years. This improvement in forecasting would, for example, allow farmers to make more informed decisions about when and what to plant.  

Forecast communication – Requires the NWS to designate at least one employee in each of the established 122 weather forecast offices as the warning coordination meteorologist. Even when forecasters accurately predict dangerous weather events, preventable deaths, injuries, and property losses occur due to shortcomings in communications about what is happening and what at-risk populations should do. Warning coordination meteorologists will focus on the regional area covered by the weather forecast office and work with local officials, media, and other channels to maximize the usefulness and effectiveness of emergency communications.  

Tornado and hurricane forecasting – Focuses on forecasting improvements and new research into extreme weather events. Establishes a tornado warning improvement and extension program for federal cooperation with private sector and academic partners to focus on developing and extending accurate tornado forecasts and warnings beyond one hour. It also creates a similar collaboration program for improving hurricane forecasting and communication of storm surges.  

Tsunami warning – Authorizes NOAA to put tsunami sensors onto commercial and federal telecommunications cables as a cost-effective improvement to the tsunami detection network and research efforts regarding tsunamis. Also authorizes grant funding to survey for “paleotsunamis”—evidence of devastating waves in prehistoric times, or periods before records were kept.  By understanding past threats, communities can prepare better for future disasters.  

Satellite governance – Reforms NOAA’s satellite procurement efforts by requiring consideration of existing systems and the overall cost of integrating new ones. The reform comes after the agency experienced costly difficulties in integrating new equipment with current ground and space systems. The bill further requires NOAA to enter into a pilot program contract to assess the private sector’s capabilities in providing weather data.  

Contracting disclosures – Addresses concerns about some agency employees abusing the contracting process to enrich themselves with lucrative post-retirement contracts. The bill requires NOAA to annually disclose information about full-time equivalent contractors and those who formerly worked at the agency as federal employees.

“Hurricane Hunter” backup – Requires NOAA to establish a backup for the capabilities of its “Hurricane Hunter” aircraft systems. NOAA operates two WP-3D Orion turboprop aircraft that fly through hurricanes and penetrate the eyewall of storms‎. These aircraft deploy instrumentation that transmits measurements of pressure, humidity, temperature, and wind speed while also scanning the storm with the aircraft's tail Doppler radar. NOAA also operates one G-IV jet that flies above and around the storm gathering high-altitude data with deployable instrumentation and tail Doppler radar.

Radar study – Requires NOAA to identify areas where there are gaps in radar coverage and provide recommendations on the supplemental observations necessary to improve public safety.

The 2017 bill advanced by the Senate does not include a watershed study that ultimately proved controversial and hindered passage last year and adds new provisions, including a study of weather radar coverage and a backup capability for air-based hurricane monitoring. The negotiated updates to H.R. 353, The Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2017, must now be formally approved by the House of Representatives, where it has been sponsored by Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) and shepherded by House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), before the legislation advances to President Donald Trump’s desk. Click here to read the full Thune substitute amendment to H.R. 353 and here for additional changes made by the Cantwell amendment.