Why On Earth Are We Cutting Research Dollars For Hurricane Hunters?

So we have another tropical storm brewing in the Gulf, and it reminds me that I saw an interview the other day with Weather Underground blogger and meteorologist, Dr. Jeff Masters. He noted that while they had the right track for Hurricane

So we have another tropical storm brewing in the Gulf, and it reminds me that I saw an interview the other day with Weather Underground blogger and meteorologist, Dr. Jeff Masters. He noted that while they had the right track for Hurricane Irene, they still need to collect more and better data to learn how to forecast intensity - and that takes money, the kind everyone wants to cut now. But hey, it's not as if these storms actually hurt people!

Better intensity forecasts of hurricane are possible, but it will take a large investment in hurricane research over an extended time to do that. Such an effort is underway; we are currently in year three of a ten-year program called theHurricane Forecast Improvement Project (HFIP), funded at just over $1 million per year.

The goals of the HFIP are to reduce the average errors of hurricane track and intensity forecasts by 20% within five years and 50% in ten years with a forecast period out to 7 days. In an interview I did last fall with the leader of the project, Dr. Frank Marks of NOAA's Hurricane Research Division, he expressed to me optimism that the program could meet its objectives, provided it remains fully funded. Some of the experimental computer models developed by HFIP have done very well so far during the 2011 hurricane season, so I see reason for optimism, too.

However, this project is in serious danger of failure, due to the current budget-cutting emphasis in Washington D.C. A key tool we need to make better intensity forecasts is to have detailed measurements inside the core of the hurricane from instrumented aircraft. Without detailed observations, there is no hope of making a good intensity forecast, no matter how good your model is. During Hurricane Irene, the two P-3 hurricane hunter aircraft and G-IV jet operated by NOAA's Aircraft Operations Center flew continuously into the storm, taking detailed measurements via dropsonde and Doppler radar that were fed in real time to the experimental HFIP computer models.

In theory, these measurements by the Hurricane Hunters should be able to significantly improve our intensity forecasts over the coming years. However, the current proposed budget from the House of Representatives mandates a $400 million cut for NOAA, and the NOAA Hurricane Hunters are slated to have their budget cut by 40 percent, from $29 million to $17 million per year. If these cuts materialize, the ability of the NOAA Hurricane Hunters to continue to aid improvements in hurricane forecasting will be seriously impacted. Many of the critical technologies used operationally now by the Air Force Hurricane Hunters and NOAA jet to improve hurricane forecasts--dropsondes, real-time high-density observations, and the SFMR surface wind measuring instrument--were developed on the NOAA P-3s as research projects, then were migrated to operational use once they proved their worth.

The cost of hurricane damages in the U.S. has been doubling every ten years since the 1960s, and is expected to continue to double every ten years, even without the likely coming increase in storm surge damages due to accelerating sea level rise. A Category 1 hurricane doing $10 billion in damage should be a wake-up call that we need to continue our investments in hurricane research to reduce the costs of the inevitable coming storms.

Slashing funding by 40 percent for a research group that was instrumental in saving $700 million in costs from just one storm makes no sense, and I hope Congress will reconsider the proposed cuts for NOAA's Aircraft Operations Center.

Yeah, because we all know how Republicans love science!

About Susie Madrak

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