Bloomberg News

Weather Balloons Seen at Risk of Being Grounded by U.S. Cuts

March 06, 2013

The U.S. National Weather Service may freeze hiring and reduce the number of balloons that soar miles high in the sky to collect data used for forecasts, a union official said.

“Those weather balloons are the main drivers they use to get models that tell you, for example, there’s a pretty big snowstorm that’s going to be in Washington,” Dan Sobien, president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization, said yesterday. “That would be a very devastating thing to cut.”

The agency is part of the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is looking at ways to reduce spending in response to across-the-board federal budget cuts. Two weather satellite programs run by NOAA also may be affected, exacerbating a coverage gap that may leave forecasters with a blind spot by the end of 2016.

The combination of the satellite gaps, fewer staff and reduced balloon deployment is “particularly disturbing” considering the importance and wide use of the agency’s data, said J. Marshall Shepherd, president of the American Meteorological Society in Boston. The weather service’s forecasts are used not only by the public, but also by government agencies such as the Pentagon and industries from agriculture to construction.

Trickle Down

“It could severely set back our forecasting ability, which Americans rely on in their day-to-day lives, and the airlines and energy companies depend on,” Shepherd said in a phone interview. “It has a trickle-down effect that impacts all aspects of our economy.”

Marni Goldberg, department spokeswoman, didn’t respond to requests for comment about potential reductions in weather balloon deployments, a hiring freeze or furloughs.

“The Department of Commerce is actively working on how to manage the budget cut in a way that protects our core mission to serve the public,” Goldberg said in an e-mail.

Sobien said he has encouraged the weather service, which delivers about 1.5 million climate forecasts and 50,000 weather warnings a year, to avoid the employee furloughs that some other agencies have threatened. Sobien said he’s aware of the possibility of a hiring freeze and fewer balloon launches from conversations with high-ranking weather service officials. He said he didn’t know whether the agency was considering furloughs.

Weather Balloons

Even so, the cuts may force the bureau to reduce the number of weather balloons it deploys each day, he said in a phone interview. Twice a day, the weather service deploys hydrogen- or helium-gas-filled balloons that record temperature, wind direction and humidity while ascending miles above the earth from 92 locations.

The hiring freeze would exacerbate an already understaffed agency, which has 8 percent or 9 percent of all positions vacant, Sobien said.

The Commerce Department has said weather forecasts and timely storm warnings would be compromised by cuts at NOAA, including the satellite programs and furloughs of 2,600 employees. The department hasn’t said whether National Weather Service staff would be excluded from any furloughs.

“As a result, the government runs the risk of significantly increasing forecast error and, the government’s ability to warn Americans across the country about high impact weather events, such as hurricanes and tornadoes, will be compromised,” Deputy Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank said last month in a letter to Senator Barbara Mikulski, the Maryland Democrat who leads the Appropriations Committee.

Automatic Cuts

The Commerce Department would have to trim $551 million as part of the $85 billion in automatic federal spending cuts that began taking effect March 1.

The reductions, known as sequestration, are occurring because Congress and the White House failed to agree on a way to reduce the deficit. They would total $1.2 trillion across the government over nine years.

The weather service provides critical guidance to a variety of businesses. The Commodity Weather Group, for example, uses the agency’s climate data to provide specialized forecasts to its clients in banking, retail, agriculture and energy, said Matt Rogers, the Bethesda, Maryland-based company’s president.

“They’re all basically looking for weather risks that could affect their costs,” Rogers said in a phone interview. “Some need it for what they do, others want to trade it or hedge it. But they all count on us to alert them of extreme weather.”

The Weather Channel also depends on the National Weather Service’s data to compile its forecasts, said Paul Walsh, vice president of weather analytics at the Weather Co., based in Atlanta.

“There’s an entire weather enterprise industry that supports commercial activities in the U.S. and abroad,” Walsh said in a phone interview. “And it all basically sits on the foundation of data collected by the National Weather Service and NOAA.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Kathleen Miller in Washington at Kmiller01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stephanie Stoughton at sstoughton@bloomberg.net


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