Editorial | Keep Climate Change Research on Front Burner

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A House bill designed to improve the U.S. government’s short-term weather forecasts has positives, particularly the provision to remove potential legal obstacles to using data from commercial sources. But the Weather Forecasting Improvement Act of 2013 (H.R. 2413) also would divert National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) resources away from climate change research, a flaw that makes the legislation — assuming it passes the full House — a tough sell in the Democratic-led Senate.

The bill, approved by the House Science, Space and Technology Committee July 9, rightly links better forecasts to the protection of life, property and the national economy, and lays out a detailed research agenda toward that end. Given recent events including Hurricane Sandy that wreaked havoc along the mid-Atlantic coast and the tornadoes that devastated communities in the nation’s heartland, few could argue.

The bill duly recognizes the potential of commercial weather offerings and removes questions about NOAA’s ability to take advantage. That uncertainty stems from a law barring the government from commercializing any portion of the weather satellite systems currently operated by NOAA. H.R. 2413 specifically exempts the purchase of data from private-sector providers as well as sensors hosted aboard government or commercial satellites from that prohibition.

Commercial weather ventures are beginning to get real traction. GeoMetWatch, which aims to place a government-designed hyperspectral sounder aboard commercial and government host satellites to monitor atmospheric conditions worldwide, has secured its first hosting agreement with AsiaSat, a deal that entails a substantial financial commitment by the Hong Kong-based satellite operator. Meanwhile, PlanetIQ and GeoOptics are raising capital for satellite constellations that would monitor atmospheric conditions using a technique that measures atmospheric distortion, or occultation, of GPS signals. 

An amendment attached to the bill during the full committee markup would require NOAA to conduct experiments assessing the value of the hyperspectral-sounding and GPS-occultation data. Of course, GPS-occultation data are already proving their value through the U.S.-Taiwanese Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere and Climate (COSMIC), and a follow-on COSMIC-2 mission is in development. For whatever reason, the Weather Forecasting Improvement Act ignores COSMIC-2 despite its obvious relevance and the fact that NOAA is struggling to fund its share of the mission this year.

But if overlooking COSMIC-2 is puzzling, relegating climate change research to second-class status is unambiguously bad policy: Global warming might not pose an immediate threat to life, but it does have far-reaching implications for property and the economy. 

The bill’s sponsors demonstrated an impressive command of the subject matter in mapping out a research agenda for NOAA, targeting specific technologies and meteorological processes for closer examination. It’s odd that these same lawmakers seem to have such little regard for so similar a field of research, especially given the stakes. To be sure, climate change is an inexact science, but so is weather forecasting — as anyone who has been let down by the weatherman can attest. Both are critical: One should not be sacrificed for the other.

The de-emphasis on climate change research is a big, perhaps fatal, liability in a bill that otherwise has the potential do a lot of good — its failure to address issues surrounding COSMIC-2 notwithstanding. The Senate should consider alternative legislation that removes the offending provision, but only if lawmakers in that chamber are certain that it won’t somehow be restored in conference.