A Victory for Americans' Safety: Senate Rejects Proposal that Would Have Crippled the National Weather Service

As a college undergraduate, I majored in meteorology. When you walk into your first college meteorology class, you ask your classmates two questions: 1) Which weather event made you want to be a meteorologist? 2) Do you want to be a broadcast meteorologist or work for the National Weather Service (NWS)? While Americans usually hear a tornado or winter storm warning from meteorologists on television or radio, it is the unseen and unheard professionals at the National Weather Service who issue the warnings. But Sen. John Thune (R-SD) recently introduced a bill with a provision that would have cut weather service jobs and made it harder for the agency to alert the public when hazards arise. Following strong criticism and opposition, the Senate tabled this part of the bill.

The original bill, titled the National Weather Service Improvement Act, would have been a disservice to Americans. In the U.S., there are 122 NWS forecasting offices. Thune's proposal would have drastically reduced the role of these offices and transferred their resources to six regional centers. He claimed this would have improved the weather service by encouraging better communication of severe weather warnings. But this downplayed the value that local weather service offices bring to the American people.

Local forecasting offices play an integral role in tracking severe weather. Last week, Tropical Storm Bill made landfall in southeastern Texas. The National Hurricane Center (NHC) monitors such storms and issues advisories and forecasts, but it does this through close coordination with the local NWS forecasting offices in impacted areas. Prior to landfall, 12 local offices issued flash flood watches in anticipation of heavy rain.

If Thune’s bill had been signed into law, these 12 offices – along with the other 110 dotted across the country – would have largely been lost. The local offices would have retained their radar and at least one warning coordination meteorologist to launch weather balloons and communicate with emergency management. But this immense short-staffing would have been counterproductive – especially since Thune’s reasons for this legislation included concerns that NWS staff has become overwhelmed during severe weather outbreaks.                                                                              

Meteorologists and the people they want to inform have already experienced serious setbacks that have imperiled public safety. In March 2013, a 10-month-long hiring freeze began at the NWS because of budget cuts. When the freeze ended, an astonishing 548 positions were vacant – nearly 15 percent of all NWS positions. Even more concerning was that nearly three-fourths of these positions were considered "emergency essential," and many were in Tornado Alley in the Great Plains and Midwest.

Following the introduction of Thune's original bill, the meteorology community pushed back. The NWS Employees Organization stated, “Likely it would mean the elimination of over 1,000 meteorologists' jobs. It would take a decade for the field of meteorology to recover from a blow like that and [for] those meteorologists to be absorbed back into the enterprise.” The Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2012 estimated there were only about 11,100 meteorology jobs in the U.S., so this legislation would have made one in ten unemployed.

A study published in the American Meteorological Journal found that forecasters’ local knowledge aids in their predictions, something that is lost when weather offices are regionalized. There are many weather phenomena unique to specific regions, such as the Santa Ana winds in California, chinook winds in the Rockies, the dry line in the plains, and the sea breeze in Florida, and local meteorologists are best able to accurately forecast their impacts.

Neighborhood weather forecasting offices also work closely with emergency management officials, keeping them informed during severe weather events and helping them warn people in the path of danger. Forcing emergency management offices to rely on regional forecasting centers would have only hampered their ability to respond quickly and accurately.

My fellow meteorologists and I have studied calculus, physics, and atmospheric dynamics to qualify for this critical profession. We want to put our specialized skills to work for the public. We feel this work is even more important – and challenging – because of the increased volatility and severity of weather events due to climate change.

Thune’s original legislation was misnamed and would have undermined the ability of the National Weather Service to effectively forecast the weather and warn Americans of impending disasters. Thanks to the efforts of concerned professionals and the people they serve, the Senate rejected the problematic provision.

Now senators can move forward and start a dialogue with meteorologists and the American people on how to best ensure lifesaving information is communicated to the public while avoiding previous errors in communication and contractor practices.

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great article chad hatten
It is startling how many politicians do not realize that nearly all weather information reported by broadcast TV and other media is based solely on interpreting information provided free by the National Weather Service with its satellite imaging, forecasts, and extensive network of reporting stations and sensors. No private company could ever afford to replicate such a network. Clearly Senator John Thune is not among the best and brightest of South Dakota. I learned most of what I know about weather as a Boy Scout or later in high school, so apparently he had an inferior education. All broadcast weather reporters do, that is the few that are actually meteorologists themselves and not male models or actors, is flesh in the details as they locally apply, while internet companies add value with things like winter driving conditions reports that take the forecast temperatures and precipitation and estimate what that will mean for the major roads. Indeed in some places without snow and ice removal equipment and supplies that gets really easy. The cities shut down when the roads get icy, while in inland Northern states some knowledge of the local transportation department's snow removal plans is necessary to add value.