LA CROSSE, Wis. — The forecast calls for a chance of cuts to the National Weather Service under the sequestration woes still plaguing Washington.
That could mean less accurate storm predictions and even jeopardize the service’s ability to warn the public about dangerous weather.
It’s unlikely the weather service headquarters in La Crosse would face layoffs or close, but that doesn’t mean the office — and the accuracy of its predictions — will escape
$50 million in weather service cuts unscathed.
It’s here in a room of brightly colored maps and flashing grids where meteorologists and hydrologists determine forecasts for counties spanning three states.
“At this point, we just don’t know what the impacts will be,” said Glenn Lussky, the meteorologist in charge of the
La Crosse office.
It is clear, however, that cuts will bite into an already-tight budget at the national agency.
The weather service has “been underfunded for a while,” said Dan Sobien, president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization. “Now we are being asked to cut another
$50 million out of that.”
Sobien estimated that forecasting models could become 30 percent less accurate.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean that the model is going to be wrong 30 percent of the time,” he said, “(but) 30 percent of the time, the models will be less accurate.”
Lussky cautioned against drawing early conclusions.
“Regardless of what happens, we’re going to do what we have to to preserve the services we currently provide,” he said.
No official cuts have been announced, but Sobien said they’ll almost certainly affect satellite programs and weather balloon launches.
Both methods of collections produced data to create atmospheric models, which Sobien called “a mathematical model of the atmosphere.”
La Crosse doesn’t launch weather balloons. The nearest office that does is in the Twin Cities, where twice-daily collections would be cut to once a day.
“The whole world relies on the data from those,” Sobien said.
La Crosse uses satellite data and sounding data (collected by weather balloons) in its models.
“There’s a great deal of other data we’re incorporating in,” said Lussky, La Crosse’s lead meteorologist.
The Commerce Department letter also states that 2,600 employees will be furloughed, 2,700 vacant positions will not be filled, and contractors will be reduced.
Sobien said an official hiring freeze is likely. La Crosse has had one position already vacant for three months.
The letter continues, “there would be significant impacts in NOAA’s ability to meet its mission to preserve Americans’ property, protect lives, prepare for extreme weather events, adapt to a changing world, and to enhance economic prosperity.“
Sobien noted that imprecise weather forecast could negatively affect agriculture, transportation, and several other areas of the economy. He called the risk of severe weather and hurricane forecasts “potentially catastrophic.”
“The cost to everyone is going to be way more than a few million dollars in savings,” he said.
For now, the La Crosse office is stuck playing the waiting game. Without a federal budget and tethered to sequester-related legislation, its current funding plan ends March 27.
“Something’s going to have to happen,” Lussky said.