published Tuesday, April 24th, 2012

Risky NOAA budget cuts

The importance of TV meteorologists was hammered home in reporter Joan Garrett's front page story in Monday's editions of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Many people told her that they are alive today because broadcasters provided early warning and detailed coverage of the deadly tornadoes here on April 27, 2011. Meteorologists here and elsewhere in the storm's path did heroic work, but they had help. The National Weather Service played a vital role in their ability to provide life-saving information.

While most local TV stations now have their own radar and other sophisticated equipment to track weather and prepare forecasts, the NWS still provides vital services. Any reduction of its role, then, could erode the ability of forecasters to provide timely information. That's why careful scrutiny of proposed budget cuts to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, of which the NWS is part, is needed. No one is quite sure how the cuts will impact the ability of national forecasters to serve and to safeguard the public, but care must be taken that it does not.

Too many lives are at stake to allow services to be reduced. The death toll in the region in April, 2011, was tragically high. It likely would have been much higher, public safety officials agree, if local and NWS forecasters had not worked in tandem to warn of approaching danger.

Paul Barys, chief meteorologist at WRCB Channel 3, puts the role of the NWS and its relationship to local forecasters in perspective. "The Weather Service," he says, "provides essential and useful information. It provides services that allows us to prepare better and more accurate forecasts. The Weather Service is very good at what it does."

Barys adds that the NWS is particularly useful during periods of extreme weather -- severe thunderstorms, tornadoes and hurricanes for example. The NWS should be provided with funds to continue operations at least at current levels.

The proposed NOAA budget might not allow it to do so. It provides more funds this fiscal year than last for weather satellite programs and less for NWS operations and research. That could be short-sighted. Satellites are, to be sure, extraordinarily useful in gathering information, but they are a tool to be used by meteorologists not a replacement for them.

Technology has a growing role in weather forecasting, but it should not eclipse the role of men and women. Area residents, in the midst of commemorating the anniversary of the April 2011 tornadoes, understand that and rightly praise local forecasters and the NWS for saving lives last year.

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