Should NOAA Focus on Climate or Weather Research?

House Republicans question NOAA chief on her agency’s priorities

NOAA

Satellite imagery shows the storm that spawned tornadoes across the Midwest earlier this month.

Jane Lubchenco, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, answered questions about the agency’s budget today in a hearing held by the House Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment.

Lubchenco began by sending her condolences to people who lost loved ones to the tornadoes that tore across the Midwest in the past week. This year, she said, now ranks in the top five for the number of tornadoes occurring in the first two months of the year. She said making the nation “weather-ready” is a top priority in her budget request for Fiscal Year 2013, which comes to $5.1 billion, an increase of $153 million over last year’s.

Not all programs get more money in the budget request. NOAA is asking for nearly $20 million less than last year for the National Weather Service (NWS), a point with which Andy Harris, Maryland Republican and chair of the subcommittee, took issue.

“Obviously climate change got a large increase, climate research. Weather service gets a decrease,” he said. “Is looking at decades in the future more important than looking a week into the future? I would say some people in the Midwest might disagree with that.”

Lubchenco said the Weather Service savings resulted from administrative efficiencies. And, she said, understanding the climate part of the equation is important.

“The investment in understanding how the climate system works influences directly our ability to provide outlooks — for example, with drought — severe weather such as heavy precipitation events, heat waves, those kinds of things,” she said. “Climate research is designed to help us understand how the climate system works. That helps us understand what will happen months ahead, years ahead, and decades ahead.”

Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican from California’s 46th District in Orange County, was also concerned about weather monitoring. He grilled Lubchenco on the U.S. Historical Climatology Network, citing a report from the Government Accountability Office that found that 42% of the network’s weather stations don’t meet all of NOAA’s standards.

“It certainly seems to me that before you’re going to go into all these other calculations you’re going to want to fix that problem,” he said. “And I guess what I’m hearing is, no you’re not going to go after those stations and that money that’s been requested to increase climate research, will have to just work around those figures that may or may not be accurate.”

Lubchenco didn’t have the answer; she said she’d have to get back to him.

Democrat Jerry McNerney, from California’s 11th District, which includes parts of the Central Valley, the Delta and the Bay Area, expressed concern that funding for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education had been cut. Lubchenco agreed, calling those cuts “the most painful” for her, but said NOAA’s highest priorities are saving lives and property.