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Weather forecasting bill clears Senate hurdle

Better late than never, the U.S. Senate approved a bill yesterday that aims to bolster the capacity of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to make seasonal weather predictions between 2 weeks and 2 years out.

“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,” Senator John Thune (R–SD), one of the bill’s primary sponsors, said after the vote, which passed by unanimous consent.

Congress last year killed a previous version of the bill over a controversial study of a contested river basin in the Southeast that the bill would have mandated.

That study was dropped in the revised bill, which now goes to the House of Representatives—where leaders have signaled their approval—for an expected vote next week. It will then go on to President Donald Trump for signing; observers predict the administration will support the bipartisan bill.

The bill contains a few new provisions. It requires NOAA to secure a fourth airplane to back up its three “Hurricane Hunters”: two turboprops and a Gulfstream jet the agency uses to monitor hurricanes. The turboprops fly through storms, and the Gulfstream monitors them from above. Last year, the jet was grounded because of corrosion from Hurricane Hermine, and NOAA scrambled to find a replacement: a loaner from the U.S. National Science Foundation.

The bill also mandates a study of where gaps may exist in NOAA’s weather radar network. Senator Richard Burr (R–NC), who has long advocated for a dedicated radar facility in Charlotte, sought the provision.

Besides these additions, the bill largely follows its predecessor. The first significant legislation to address weather in a generation, it calls for NOAA to improve its hurricane and tornado research. It directs the agency to put sensors on subsea telecommunication cables to improve tsunami warnings, and expand its efforts in uncovering prehistoric tsunamis. It also orders the agency to evaluate how well the public understands and responds to its cryptic system of “watch” and “warning” weather alerts.

The bill offers a sharp response to NOAA’s notoriously delayed and overbudget satellite missions, to the point of telling the agency which simulations it should run to judge the relative merits of sensors. It also requires NOAA to shift from relying exclusively on its own satellites and weather data and to look for commercial alternatives.