Frank Bernheisel: The View From Here
Frank Bernheisel
Frank Bernheisel
Posted 10.2.17
Just Outside Washington


Raindrops keep falling on my head

The U.S. was just hit by two HUGE hurricanes. Minimizing the damage done by these storms depends on knowing where and when they are going to hit; that is weather forecasting. The Washington Post reported that the Gulfstream jet that collects high altitude data by flying through hurricanes aborted its flight through Maria. This plane belongs to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); home to the National Weather Service (NWS) and the National Hurricane Center.

The Gulfstream had a gasket failure at its cabin door causing a loss in pressure; this was a repeat of the problem the plane had in Hurricane Jose on September 17. But wait, we are not done yet; last Sunday, the plane would not start; ignition failure. Clearly there is a maintenance issue here and usually maintenance is one of the first things cut when budgets are tight.

NOAA's budget is being cut by 18 percent in 2018; and its Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research would lose $126 million, or 26 percent. Its satellite data division would lose $513 million, or 22 percent.

Rick Spinrad, a former chief scientist for NOAA, said that weather warnings for tornadoes and hurricanes could be compromised and that navigational capacity used to help guide commercial ships and other mariners would suffer, leaving them without the "improved forecasts they need to safely maneuver coastal waters." It could become harder to warn of tsunamis and forecast weather that will cause power outages. The table below displays the proposed budgetary changes to the NWS's operations, research and facilities program, and its procurement, acquisition, and construction activities.

(NOAA "blue book" for the Fiscal Year 2018 budget)

In a statement on the Government Executive news website, the agency said it's not considering or proposing cutting staff or closing offices.

However, this morning's Washington Post also reported that the National Weather Service has 216 vacancies that it could not fill because of President Trump's hiring freeze. Six of these unfilled positions are in Florida. This is in addition to the decline in the staffing level authorized; 3,800 in 2010 to 3,400 in 2016 to 3,368 in 2017. Further, no NOAA Administrator has been appointed by the Trump Administration; ten of the 22 NOAA headquarters management positions are filled by acting personnel.

Is it any wonder that NOAA cannot deploy a Gulfstream aircraft to take high altitude measurements during Hurricane Maria? And, by the way, there is no back-up to the Gulfstream at NOAA.