Storms may be ahead for weather budget

Economic woes could batter funding for satellites used in forecasting

BOULDER – On a day when economic storms buffeted the country, weather forecasters gathered to bring attention to the effect of actual storms on the economy.

The American Meteorological Society’s summer meeting began with discussion about how to survive the era of budget-cutting that has taken hold in Washington. The federal government runs much of the country’s weather-forecasting equipment.

Just four satellites supply data for weather forecasts, and that number could drop to two – one military and one civilian, said Berrien Moore, a University of Oklahoma professor.

“It’s a little bit like the problem we have with baby boomers. We have an aging population,” Moore said.

U.S. forecasters could have to rely on European satellites for their mid-morning data, he said.

Moore recalled a sunny morning this May in Oklahoma when forecasters predicted tornadoes that afternoon.

“I thought it was a beautiful day for golf,” Moore said.

But based on the forecasts, the governor sent state workers home in the afternoon, and sure enough, the tornadoes struck.

Joplin, Mo., had two days’ warning of the twister that killed 153 people in May, and emergency responders were already in place.

Such precise tornado forecasts could not have been done 10 years ago, but they are at risk, Moore said.

Private and government forecasters lack the solid data they need to make their case to Congress, panelists said.

“It’s time to move beyond anecdotes,” said Jeff Lazo with the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

The weather can add or subtract $485 billion a year from the U.S. economy, according to a study Lazo co-wrote this year.

That’s 3.4 percent of gross domestic product, and with today’s small rate of growth, it would make the difference between a good year and a recession.

Congress agreed to make spending cuts in last week’s debt deal, but the exact targets of those cuts have not been determined.

The situation has the weather community hanging on every word coming out of Washington, and AMS President Jon Malay heard an encouraging line in President Barack Obama’s address to the nation two weeks ago.

“It was a stunning success to hear the president say there are some things we just need to do, like weather satellites,” Malay said.

jhanel@durangoherald.com

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