Funding cuts proposed in a White House budget that has been on the table for months spook some experts who are concerned that the ability to do everything from model changes in the climate to forecast the day-to-day weather could be impacted.
President Trump, who has been vocal about his belief that climate change isn’t real, has proposed to eliminate laboratory research on climate change. The aim is to axe climate science from the budgets of NOAA and NASA.
These cuts would impact the ability to measure sea level rise or long-term climate shifts, but would also make it more difficult to predict extreme weather events and forecast the weather, according to some experts.
The goal of the cuts is to reduce NASA’s study of the planet in favor of space exploration and shave an estimated $100 million off the agency’s billion-dollar annual budget. Among its proposals, the administration would continue development of the NOAA’s current generation of weather satellites, but the budget proposes to eliminate four earth science missions.
NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, one of the world’s most important weather data providers, relies heavily on the data provided by these federal programs.
And the catastrophe modeling industry, as well as the insurance and reinsurance industries, rely heavily on data from the NCEI.
“This really can impact the safety and health of the American public when it comes to extreme weather events and climate change overall,” said Max Messervy, the insurance program manager at Ceres, a Boston, Mass.-based nonprofit group that advocates for sustainability leadership. “From what we’ve heard, I would say these potential cuts to the NOAA and NASA budgets, with respect to the insurance, reinsurance and the cat modeling communities, these are areas of widespread concern.”
Without the data that’s now being provided by these programs, those who rely on it will either have to make do or fork over the money to collect the data themselves.
“From what I’ve heard, it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible for private entities to provide the amount of data that’s collected by these federal science programs free of charge,” Messervy said. “These satellites are increasingly technical, they are expensive.”
The above video put out in February by NCEI, and produced by Acclimatise and Greenbelt, Md.-based contractor Global Science & Technology Inc., explains the importance of this data.
According to Acclimatise, the video wasn’t produced in response to proposed budget and work on the video began months before the new administration was in office.
The video features natural catastrophes like Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and the EF5 tornado in Moore, Okla. in 2013 and draws on interviews with scientists discussing how the data is used to model for the impacts of such events.
“Data from the NCEI is used extensively in building tools that are widely utilized by both the insurance and reinsurance industry,” Mark Bove, a Senior Research Meteorologist at Munich Re America, said in the video.
Bove was one of several people in the cat modeling industry reached out to interview for this story. All of those contacted expressed concern about making comments that could be construed as political in nature. Some declined to be interviewed for that reason.
The data from NCEI is used to develop models for events such as tropical cyclones, severe convective storms, hail and hurricanes. The data is also used to validate actual losses seen on the ground and to calibrate models to better understand the financial implications, the video explains.
“If NCEI data was not available and I’d have to do my same job, my job would be extremely more difficult,” Bove said. “NCEI data is invaluable to the insurance industry and it would be really hard to put a price tag on it.”
The data isn’t just valuable for long-range forecasts and modeling, but for forecasting the daily weather, which is crucial to the financial sector for the daily trading of derivatives, among other uses.
“So, everything that’s being compiled and maintained is the foundation for so many transactions in the financial sector, that without it we would lose literally billions of dollars of economic activity in the United States,” Bove said.
Keith Seitter, executive director of the American Meteorological Society, believes these federal programs should get more funding, not less.
“Given what we know about climate change and the risk involved, and the sense there’s going to be more high-impact weather, we should be investing rather than cutting,” Seitter said.
The AMS has mobilized to battle the proposed cuts by attempting to educate members of Congress on climate change and the importance of the data being gathered.
The group earlier this month sent a letter to Congressman Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, explaining the value of the data and the scientific process.
The letter touts the improved capability of forecasting weather more accurately, which it explained is a combination of increased understanding of the physical processes that influence weather, increased observational capabilities, and increased computational power to take advantage of that physical understanding and observational data.
“It is inconceivable that a human disaster like the Galveston hurricane of 1900 would occur today thanks to the observational and predictive power of the weather enterprise,” the letter states. “Having predictive capabilities has been critical in reducing the loss of life and property, as well as reducing economic disruption from severe weather events.”
Seitter in his interview with Insurance Journal stressed the importance of the data derived from observational capabilities provided by the federal government.
“The observational network is the foundation of everything,” Seitter said. “And if there are cuts to the actual observations themselves, that’s impeding our ability to even understand what’s going on. That’s certainly an enormous concern for everyone.”
Everything from forecasting the weather over the next two days to modeling the future impacts of climate change are based on these observations, he said.
“Almost all those observations are done though federal funding,” Seitter added.
His group’s outreach efforts include briefings for Congressional staff and members on the Hill to explain the value of the data and what the science is all about.
“If you’re going to make good policy, you have to be using the best available knowledge,” Seitter said.
Peter Sousounis, assistant vice president and director of meteorology in the research and modeling division for cat modeler AIR Worldwide, believes the cuts could have far-reaching implications.
“The budget cuts will affect many aspects of many scientific organizations across the board,” Sousounis said.
Of particular concern for him are he proposed cuts to the satellite missions.
“That literally is our eye in the sky,” Sousounis said. “Without that satellite information, that could certainly hinder the accuracy of the forecast.”
For example, model initialization (the starting of the model) may no longer improve without the data, according to Sousounis, who noted that the better the initialization, the more accurate the forecast is likely to be.
Without the data, forecasts many not only stop improving, but could become less precise, according to him.
“There may be more uncertainty associated with those forecasts,” Sousounis added.
He was referring to the cone of uncertainty.
In a hurricane, for example, the swath of land or sea over which it may develop may not get any narrowe, or could become broader, without the ability to advance the accuracy of model forecasts.
This could mean forecasters could call for a larger evacuation zone in an area where a hurricane may hit, or larger watch boxes over areas where severe weather is expected.
The result would have financial and societal implications, causing more business interruption and more evacuations than necessary, as well as conditioning people to believe that severe weather alerts are exaggerated, he said.
“It could be that the general public doesn’t want to heed the warnings, because they now think the National Weather Service is overly conservative,” Sousounis said.
However, Sousounis said he believes there’s a good chance that cat modeling industry can survive the proposed budget cuts and continue to provide an acceptable level of service – albeit with greater effort – and that the cut could be a benefit by attracting qualified, about-to-be-unemployed scientists to private industry from federal government.
Seitter was asked to make sense of the reasoning reason behind the proposed cuts.
He believe they are being driven by lack of knowledge, or a lack of faith in science.
“Certainly there’s lots of speculation about why people may choose to downplay the scientific conclusions on things like climate change,” Seitter said. “There seems to be a sense within this administration and other individuals that the science is not as well established is it actually is.”
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