Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.
By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 9:50 PM GMT on March 11, 2008
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the parent organization of the National Weather Service (NWS) and National Hurricane Center (NHC), has just released the President's proposed Fiscal year 2009 (FY 2009) budget. The new $4.1 billion budget is 5.2% larger than the budget enacted for this year, and proposes major new funding for hurricane-related research and operations. If approved by Congress and sustained for the next ten years, the new hurricane research funding offers some real hope that we will finally make headway in improving hurricane intensity forecasts.
$5.3 million in new funding for improving hurricane intensity and track forecasts
The big news in this year's proposed budget is the increased funding for improving hurricane intensity (and track) forecasts. Forecasts of hurricane tracks improved by about 50% in the past 20 years, but intensity forecasts improved very little during that period. In fact, the intensity forecasts issued by NHC in 2007 were poorer than average, thanks to twice as many rapid intensification episodes as usual (recall Felix, Humberto, and Lorenzo). To have any hope of solving the hurricane intensification problem, a major investment in hurricane research is required. In May 2007, the NOAA Executive Council (NEC) established the NOAA Hurricane Forecast Improvement Project (HFIP), a 10-year NOAA effort to accelerate improvements in one to five day forecasts for hurricane track, intensity, storm surge and to reduce forecast uncertainty, with an emphasis on rapid intensity change. The proposed FY 2009 budget allocates $1.04 million to fund this effort, plus another $3.2 million for improving hurricane models such as the new HWRF model (which debuted operationally in 2008). An additional $1 million is proposed for the Numerical Prediction Developmental Testbed Center (DTC), to transfer improvements in hurricane forecast models done in a research setting into operational use by the NHC as quickly as possible.
This proposed $5.3 million in new funding for hurricane research would allow us to increase the resolution of today's current computer hurricane forecast models--currently no better than 9 km--down to 1 km, a scale that can resolve the fine-scale processes that are critical to hurricane intensification. This sort of improvement gives us real hope of being able to solve the hurricane intensity forecast problem. The cost of such an effort could be made up in savings from the reduced evacuation costs from just one major hurricane. For example, the evacuation effort for Hurricane Rita cost over 100 lives and $2 billion. Quoting from the proposed FY 2009 budget document (p. 386):
A case study of Hurricane Rita demonstrates the economic benefits derived from improved forecasting. Typically, a household decision to evacuate is based on the issuance of a hurricane warning and the anticipated storm strength. On early morning of September 22, 2005, a hurricane warning was issued from Port Mansfield, Texas to Cameron, Louisiana. At that time, Hurricane Rita was a Category 4 storm having just been downgraded from a Category 5. Under this scenario, the estimated economic impact of the evacuation was $2.344 billion. Without the initiative, NWS expects a reduction of forecast track and wind speed errors by 10% resulting in 159,000 people remaining home and saving the economy $68.9 million dollars. With the initiative however, NWS could improve forecast track and wind speed errors by 50% and 30% respectively, resulting in 4 million remaining home and saving the economy $1.99 billion dollars. This includes 100 that would have been saved during the evacuation of Houston."
1. Cost of Hurricane Evacuation by Kevin Smith, University of Eastern Carolina, 1999; Opportunity Costs of Hurricane Evacuation by John Whitehead, University of Eastern Carolina, 1999; and Structure of a Hurricane Evacuation by Mike Lindell, Texas A&M University, 2005.
2. Based on 2002 Current Population Estimate and 2002 County Business Patterns from the Bureau of the Census. Probability of Evacuation and average cost from Cost of Hurricane Evacuation by Kevin Smith, University of Eastern Carolina, 1999. The average household will spend $149 during an evacuation and the average business will lose $20,599 in 2006 dollars.
Figure 1. Hurricane Rita approaches the Texas/Louisiana coast on September 23, 2005. Image credit: NASA.
New funding for the Hurricane Hunters
The new budget proposes $4 million in new money for NOAA's weather research aircraft, including the two NOAA P-3 Orion hurricane hunter aircraft. Flight hours would increase by about a factor of two, from 1365 to 2845, and a third NOAA P-3 aircraft would be added for hurricane hunting. The new P-3 is expected to be operational for the coming 2008 hurricane season.
Not all of the money for the NOAA weather research aircraft would go for hurricane-related operations; there would be increased flight hours for winter storms surveillance (125 hours), airborne snow surveys to improve water resource forecasts and improve snow melt flood forecasts (330 hours), and coastal mapping to improve and maintain nautical charts and to improve tsunami inundation modeling (330 hours).
$3 million for Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS)
The new budget proposes $3 million to fund the use of remote controlled aircraft--Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS)--for weather research. Some of this money would go to fund hurricane research. The UAS platforms would also be used for climate change work and studies of Pacific storms that impact the U.S. West Coast. These UAS platforms can go where the Hurricane Hunters cannot--at low altitude in hurricanes--and provide a crucial set of data that can help with forecasts of rapid hurricane intensification.
$3 million for buoys
Another major increase in hurricane-related funding is an additional $3 million to operate the network of 15 open ocean "Hurricane Supplemental data buoys" that provide important measurements of wind speeds, pressure, and wave heights. These buoys had only $1.4 million in funding last year. Real time data from these stations will assist the National Hurricane Center to more accurately determine hurricane formation or dissipation; the extent of tropical hurricane wind circulation; the location and center of hurricanes; direction, height, and distribution of ocean waves generated by hurricanes; the maximum hurricane intensity; and the quality of measurements and estimates obtained from remote-sensing reconnaissance aircraft and satellites. Although this is not as big a deal as the proposed hurricane intensity research funding, it is still a great boost for hurricane forecasters.
Is this too much money for hurricane research and operations?
The President's proposed budget will be modified by both the House and Senate before it becomes law in October. It is possible that some or all of the increased hurricane-related funding could be stripped from the budget. However, it is more likely that additional funding would be added, since Congress has always passed a NOAA budget larger than asked for by President Bush. According to the National Science Board, government funding for hurricane research averaged $20 million between 2001 and 2006, so the proposed addition of another $10 million or so in the FY 2009 budget would represent a huge boost. Is this too much money to spend? Well, considering that the National Science Board advocated creation of a National Hurricane Research Initiative funded at $300 million per year, an extra $10 million per year for hurricane research is not very much.
To do a thorough job of reducing our vulnerability to hurricanes, $300 million per year is a reasonable amount to spend. However, the U.S. faces a number of threats that also require large outlays of dollars, such as bioterrorism, a flu pandemic, and earthquakes. Getting a $300 million per year project funded in a time of "increasingly small non-defense discretionary budgets" is difficult. To put this number in perspective, the annual amount spent in the U.S. on meteorology operations and supporting research is $3 billion. About $900 million per year of this goes to run the National Weather Service. The federal budget request for FY 2009 for flu pandemic emergency preparedness is $820 million--about the same amount of money that is spent for the entire National Weather Service! What's really startling is the amount of money spent on bioterrorism emergency preparedness--between $3 and $6 billion per year since 2002, with $4.3 billion requested for 2009. That's over 200 times what we spend on hurricane research, and over ten times the $300 million for hurricane research proposed by the National Science Board. A catastrophic bioterrorism attack on the U.S. may never occur, but catastrophic hurricane strikes are guaranteed. These strikes will occur with increasing frequency in the future, as more people move to the coast and the population increases. A major increase in hurricane research funding will reduce the costs of these future disasters, and is very much in order.
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