Clouds on Horizon for Weather Service Budget

Posted April 5, 2013 at 5:48pm

For Cliff Mass, a University of Washington professor and the author of a popular meteorology blog, the title of the 2012 federal report “Weather Service for the Nation: Becoming Second to None” summed up his growing concerns.

“The implication of this report is clear: the National Weather Service is no longer the world leader in weather prediction,” Mass wrote in December.

Like many weather specialists, Mass was stung by how the European Center for Medium Range Weather Forecasting, based in England, last year seemingly got the jump on the National Weather Service in predicting the strength of late October’s Superstorm Sandy.

Then in December, the National Academy of Sciences issued a report saying significant “advances in the atmospheric and hydrological sciences continue, and the NWS is struggling to maintain the pace of acquiring, integrating, and communicating critical forecast and warning information based on these advances.”

An internal review last year by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Commerce Department illustrates the budget pressures the agency faces as it tries to maintain staff at its 122 forecasting offices while keeping up to date with forecasting technology. It also amounts to a cautionary tale of how agency managers seeking to make the most of limited dollars wound up circumventing Congress and losing their jobs.

According to the joint report, early signs of trouble with the weather service’s books were ignored. The issue finally caught the attention of the NOAA inspector general in late 2010, when the office received a tip that funds had been diverted from a program that the weather service calls the “cornerstone” of its modernization plans, Raytheon’s Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System, or AWIPS. By March 2011, the inspector general’s office learned that more than $10 million had been transferred away from AWIPS, but the weather service had not sought permission from Congress.

Some employees at the NWS were convinced by more experienced colleagues who argued the technology contracts were “forward funded” and the money was needed to cover existing weather service shortfalls, the review found. The NOAA report, made public but heavily redacted, says an unidentified employee argued “it was necessary to take money from the AWIPS program because it was the end of the fiscal year, and NWS had to ‘make ends meet.’”

Money went to cover shortfalls at weather stations and to beef up a depleted supply of weather balloons and related equipment, according to the report. But the move also deferred upgrades to AWIPS, increasing the risk that it could fail and making it impossible to make software upgrades, the report said.

“As the years go by and the amounts needed are getting larger, there is no way all of this borrowed funding can be returned,” an analyst said in the report. “I fear when all this comes due, there will be no funds there.”