On May 22, 2011, a single massive tornado hit Joplin, Missouri, claiming more than 150 lives. But the death toll would have been much higher a century ago.
“With something of this magnitude, the loss of life may have been in the tens of thousands, as tragic as it was in the hundreds,” said Bob Ryan, a meteorologist in Washington, D.C. “In a historical perspective, before we had the modern tools, and before we had the data and before we had the system in place, the loss of life would have been horrendous.”
Ryan helped highlight the importance of those modern tools during a briefing on Capitol Hill earlier this month. The briefing focused on the role weather satellites play in protecting public safety, national security and the economy. While measurements from orbiting satellites are crucial for maintaining accurate and timely weather predictions, funding for the government’s weather satellite program has been cut, compromising a year of atmospheric data collection.
Kathryn Sullivan, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), emphasized the importance of what she calls, “the chain.”
“Satellites to models to expert forecasters to provide the guidance. And then media, from an app on our iPhones to radio and television.“
Sullivan stressed that the responsibility of keeping that forecasting chain intact lies with the federal government.
“This is what we as a nation do, to assure that as a nation, we have - for all citizens - the technical and expertise foundation that lets observation transform to knowledge, transform to information that matters. And moved in a timely fashion, so that you can take the right action to protect yourself, your business, your home, your family.”
However, due to deep budget cuts, development of a replacement satellite has been slowed and its original deployment date delayed. Sullivan said without it, the amount of data fed into numerical weather models will be cut in half, reducing the prediction accuracy of a storm’s location and severity.
“If you know on this day starting at about that time, an intense snowfall event is going to leave you 22 inches of snow on the ground, you are going to behave differently," Sullivan said. "We’re not talking being slightly wrong. We’re talking potentially being 50 percent less good on where a storm is going or what the consequences it dumps on the ground may be.”
Ryan called that loss of accuracy “an unacceptable risk.”
“If we have a setback in accuracy, we may lose the confidence of the person making the decision in the forecast. And once we lose the confidence in the forecast, as with anything, it takes a long time to get that confidence back.”
However, things may be looking up for NOAA and its weather satellite system. Ryan pointed to President Barack Obama’s remarks on the economy last month.
“When the president mentioned two words, “weather satellites” as being something fundamentally important and part of something that shouldn’t be cut," he says, "I, in all candor, had never heard those two words before in a presidential speech and almost fell off of my chair.”
There's also another reason to be hopeful; weather is a bipartisan concern.
As Ryan noted, “Tornadoes don’t know which political party they belong to.”