Forecasters are calling for an “extremely active” hurricane season, fueled in part by record-warm ocean waters. That means the nation’s next costly natural disaster could be a landfalling hurricane. It could also be a tornado outbreak, flood, heat wave, drought, wildfire or hail storm.

When I served as chief of staff for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) from 2001 to 2008, the U.S. experienced an average of seven billion-dollar weather and climate disasters per year. Now, the annual average has swelled to 20 over the past five years, including a record 28 disasters last year. In the past decade, the average annual cost of these disasters has skyrocketed from $64 billion to $121 billion, and it’s only expected to climb higher according to the federal government’s latest National Climate Assessment.

The financial toll would be much greater if it weren’t for weather forecasts issued or enabled by NOAA, which already save billions of dollars annually and countless lives. However, the agency’s budget is simply too small to keep up with the new reality of extreme weather, putting hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of lives at risk over the next few decades.

What NOAA acting chief scientist Craig McLean said to Congress three years ago —”NOAA is a $12 billion agency trapped in a $5-and-a-half billion budget”— still rings true today. With a fiscal year 2024 budget of $6.3 billion, the nation’s leading weather and climate agency remains significantly underfunded given the requirements to meet its mission of protecting life, property and the economy.

NOAA has always been a good value for the American taxpayer. Looking at hurricanes alone, a 2022 study estimated $7 billion in savings due to NOAA forecast improvements since 2009—that’s 20 times the agency’s hurricane forecasting system budget during the same period. Another analysis estimates a value of $9 for every $1 spent by federal agencies on weather forecasting and research, which also enables a thriving private weather sector.

These large returns on investment are due to advances in weather forecasting infrastructure, research and technology that have yielded steady improvements in forecast accuracy and lead times over the past several decades. The pace of improvement, however, has struggled to keep up with the increasing frequency of weather extremes.

The good news is, research shows that “our current weather prediction capabilities are not yet maxed out and could still be significantly improved,” but that it would take 40 to 50 years to reach their full potential at the current rate of improvement. The nation can’t afford to wait that long given the financial toll of extreme weather could reach $2 trillion annually by the end of this century.

There is “growing evidence that investing in improvements in weather forecasting is a highly cost-effective means of reducing damages from extreme weather,” according to the World Bank. One study found that a 50 percent improvement in U.S. temperature forecasts alone would save 2,200 lives and $2.1 billion annually.

Yet funding for NOAA, whose data and models underpin all U.S. weather forecasts, has remained largely stalled. The agency’s annual budget has increased by just $1 billion in the past decade — some programs are even facing significant cuts — while the annual cost of extreme weather has soared by more than $50 billion.

Return on investment

Here are five critical NOAA focus areas where increased funding would accelerate the pace of forecast improvement, potentially saving the nation hundreds of billions of dollars over the next few decades based on the historical return on investment in weather forecasting:

— Observations: Numerous sensors collect millions of weather observations every day. But there are still significant data gaps, especially in the lower atmosphere and across the oceans, that restrict our ability to improve forecasts. In addition, NOAA’s method for bringing this data into its forecast models is not as advanced as it could be — a key reason why the accuracy of its flagship model has lagged behind international competitors. NOAA must have the financial means to tap into new data sources and improve its technique for ingesting data into its models.

— Computing resources: NOAA’s Science Advisory Board estimated the agency will need at least 100 times more high-performance computing capacity by 2031 to handle the expected research and operations load, including running more advanced models that make forecasts at finer scales. Expanded use of cloud computing is critical to accelerating the transition of research to operations, allowing academia and industry to contribute to model improvements, providing on-site decision support to key partners, and seamlessly disseminating forecasts and warnings.

— Coastal resilience: Nearly 40 percent of Americans live in coastal counties, which are taking a battering from more extreme weather. Robust funding of NOAA’s water modeling, buoy network, flood mapping and land cover data is vital to supporting sustainable coastal management that protects near-shore communities, marine health and habitats, commercial fishing, recreational businesses, and coastal tourism and transportation.

— Artificial intelligence: NOAA is collaborating with academic partners to evaluate emerging AI weather models from the private sector. The agency is also conducting in-house AI projects to improve its forecasting capabilities. Still, NOAA trails its top competitor, the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, which has already developed its own AI forecast model. AI has shown great promise to slash the cost of operating forecast models but requires upfront investment to get the ball rolling.

— Social science: More accurate forecasts don’t ensure better decisions. Forecasts must be communicated effectively to elicit responses that save lives and minimize financial loss. A well-funded NOAA social science program is essential to understanding how people interpret and act on forecasts, better communicating forecasts, improving decision support to emergency managers, assessing the needs of vulnerable populations, and quantifying the economic value of better forecasts.

Many of these key priorities are outlined in the Weather Act Reauthorization Act of 2023 under consideration by Congress, though none can move forward at a proper speed at existing funding levels.

The United States is the world’s second-most economically exposed country to intensifying weather hazards, according to a recent report from reinsurance company Swiss Re. Therefore, it is more urgent now than ever before to fund NOAA at a level commensurate with the rising toll of extreme weather and the value of NOAA’s services to the nation.

Scott Rayder is president of Lynker, a science, engineering and technology company that supports NOAA and other federal agencies. Previously, he served as NOAA chief of staff from 2001 to 2008 after first joining the agency in 1992.

In Other News
Load More