Thanks to El Nino, the upper-atmospheric wind phenomenon that forms every three to five years, no named tropical storms have appeared more than a third of the way through the 2009 hurricane season.
El Nino’s sooner-than-expected development has disrupted the formation of thunderstorms in the Atlantic Ocean that can quickly turn into hurricanes. It also had prompted storm forecasters to scale back predictions.
That insight comes courtesy of scientists in the Rocky Mountains, who have long contributed to preparing Floridians for Mother Nature’s fury.
U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson wants more of that research done closer to home. The Orlando Democrat has proposed – and gotten assurances – for a state-of-the-art $50 million meteorological research site in Central Florida whose main mission would be to improve understanding of hurricane formation and behavior.
The commitment Grayson received from the House leadership and the Obama administration appears to settle the question of whether the weather facility comes to pass.
But some experts wonder exactly what such a facility would do, especially given the amount of current or planned storm research.
Much of the nation’s knowledge about hurricanes comes from a spot in the foothills of the Rockies: Colorado State University in Fort Collins.
Colorado State became the nucleus for storm research in 1960, when the late Herbert Riehl, a renowned storm expert, set up shop there, said Phil Klotzbach, a research scientist at the university.
Other scientists shortly followed, including William Gray, who now leads a team of scientists who each year predict the hurricane activity relied upon by residents and government officials in Florida.
Gray’s team has issued those forecasts since 1984, said Klotzbach.
Grayson, whose district includes much of eastern Marion County including Silver Springs Shores, eastern Ocala and Fort McCoy, convinced House leaders to keep the hurricane item in the chamber’s budget during the June debate on the American Clean Energy and Security Act, known as the cap-and-trade bill.
The wild card is whether the Senate will retain the facility in its budget.
Grayson has said he believes it will remain because the idea is supported by President Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman. He recently reiterated that position, noting that the facility is listed in the 1,400-page cap-and-trade bill.
“When the president and the House speaker say it’s going to happen, it’s probably going to happen,” Grayson said in a recent interview.
Grayson’s initial announcement drew some fire.
The Orlando Sentinel editorial page blasted it as a “Category 5 waste” that Congress should reject. The paper argued that Grayson, who indicated the center could be affiliated with the University of Central Florida, was “offering pork when the school needs chicken,” meaning research money for fields such as alternative fuels and biomedical studies.
The paper also criticized Grayson for selling his vote on the energy bill – an allegation he has denied.
Some experts either declined to comment on the plan, or wondered what it would do that is not already being done.
Grayson has maintained the new facility, which could be a source of international study on hurricanes, is needed because the government spends just $2 million a year on hurricane research.
Officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which operates the National Hurricane Center in Miami, say the total spent on hurricane-related expenses is hard to pin down.
The costs include aircraft operations, research, satellite operations and weather forecast offices – all of which conduct hurricane-related missions but aren’t solely dedicated to that all year long.
They estimate the agency’s overall hurricane-related expenditures run $300 million a year.
But much of that goes for other purposes or falls outside the scope of what Grayson proposes.
For example, the National Hurricane Center costs $6.9 million a year, but that is strictly for operations done to monitor and report on hurricanes. The center does not do research, officials say.
Jana Goldman, spokeswoman for NOAA, said the agency did not have a position on Grayson’s request.
NOAA records, though, indicate the agency seeks $17 million in next year’s budget for the Hurricane Forecast Improvement Project, a multiyear effort that improves hurricane forecasts and warning accuracy. That amount is up $13 million over current funding.
NOAA also wants $10 million for the hurricane division of its Oceanic and Atmospheric Research office, which is up $1 million over the current amount.
Klotzbach opted not to comment at length because he did not want to get entangled in a political debate.
“The more people doing research, the better,” he observed. “But perhaps the money could be spent helping the centers that already do it.”
A Los Angeles Times article on Sunday illustrated how much research is going on.
For example, Florida State University has utilized computer modeling to improve accuracy of hurricane predictions. Scientists in Tallahassee have done so by re-forecasting storm seasons from 1986 through 2005, the Times reported.
The University of Miami is planning to build a $48 million complex – $15 million of which came through a federal grant – to study the effect of hurricane winds battering coastal structures. In a separate program, Florida International University also plans to install a simulator capable of producing 130-mph winds.
Peter B. Ortner, director of the Cooperative Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Studies at the University of Miami, noted in an interview that his school – in partnership with the universities of Georgia and Oklahoma – is close to winning an award for a $5 million federally funded center that would analyze the effect of wind and water.
The initiative would focus on understanding how hurricanes intensify, but would not involve constructing a new building to house scientists.
Ortner acknowledged research gaps exist that need to be filled.
For instance, he said, forecasters would like to gain knowledge on better communicating storm information to the public and studying how to move people quickly out of the way. That would aid planning and disaster response efforts.
Grayson has said he envisions the Orlando facility providing real-time information to the public and the media to assist with preparations.
Ortner added that there is a “large amount” of research that must be done on understanding intensification of storms, in addition to what his facility might do.
And scientists could benefit if there was better integration among the current research centers.
Beyond that, however, he was puzzled why a new facility would be located in Orlando, when researchers, in Florida at least, have decided Miami is the hub for that.
“It’s not clear where this plays into that. Would they try to move things? That would be counterproductive,” Ortner said. “We need more money, but we don’t need another facility.”