Washington, DC —Despite a proposed budget hike of more than $150 million, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is moving to curtail support for its critical ocean-based tsunami warning system and terminate funding for Alaska’s tsunami and seismic network and emergency public outreach for the West Coast and Alaska, among other activities, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). These precipitous budgetary moves by NOAA leave both state and federal officials puzzled and uncertain how vital public safety work will proceed.
These cuts were not mentioned in public briefings on the FY 2013 NOAA budget. Instead, they were disclosed in employee briefings and correspondence with state partners. The two main tsunami-related budgetary casualties are:
- NOAA’s Deep Ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis (DART) network of 39 stations covering the Pacific, Atlantic, Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. Currently, more than one in four (10 out of 39) of its DART stations are inoperative. The planned reduction in operations and maintenance will likely lead to even greater outages in the DART network, which according to NOAA, “serves as the cornerstone of the U.S. tsunami warning system”; and
- The Tsunami Warning and Environmental Observatory for Alaska (TWEAK) which maintains Alaska's seismic monitoring network for warnings about tsunami-generating earthquakes and measuring motion on the sea floor associated with these quakes, develops tsunami mapping and modeling for the evaluation of flooding at Alaska coastal communities and provides operational support for the NOAA Alaska Tsunami Warning Center, such as tide gauges and pressure sensors, as well as work on public education and community preparedness.
“Our tsunami warning system is one of the last things NOAA should contemplate cutting,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that these cuts were not mentioned in public briefings on the NOAA budget. “This is like a homeowner economizing by disconnecting the smoke alarm.”
While the loss of these funds is relatively modest (less than $5 million per year), the effects are much larger. The DART funds are dedicated to maintaining buoys in remote rough seas. TWEAK, on the other hand, relies on a small federal investment to leverage additional state and local resources. TWEAK’s vulnerability may stem from Alaska’s severe winter weather which is taxing the NOAA budget due to higher heating bills and events such as the protracted Russian tanker’s oil delivery to Nome.
“It makes little sense for NOAA to abruptly sever its scientific partnership in Alaska, one of the planet’s most seismically active places--which had three tsunami warnings in 2011 alone,” Ruch added. “By failing to provide an explanation or a phase-in period, NOAA needlessly compounds the confusion and dislocation precisely where it can least afford it.”
Aggravating the effects of these cuts are plans to remove the Information Technology Officer (ITO) positions from all Weather Forecast Offices nationwide. These officials relay all weather and tsunami warnings to public safety and civil defense authorities. The loss of 120 ITOs decreases chances for a warning in advance of a hurricane, severe storm or tsunami. For example, ITO triggered the tornado sirens in Joplin last May by relaying the warning from the National Weather Service computer system to the Emergency Management System.