Where I live, weather isn't just water cooler talk. As a ski industry worker living in the Sierra Nevada mountains, my colleagues and I track storm forecasts with fervor. As a storm approaches, we need to know when high winds will roll in, what elevation the snow levels will be at, how much precipitation is anticipated and the type of snow that will fall. And President Donald Trump's proposed cuts to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) would potentially put me and my colleagues in danger.
Under Trump's newly proposed budget, which would prioritize military spending and make significant cuts to other agencies, NOAA's budget would be slashed by 17 percent. According to NOAA's website, the agency's "reach goes from the surface of the sun to the depths of the ocean floor as we work to keep citizens informed of the changing environment around them." The biggest cuts to the agency would come to its research arm, which would stand to lose 26 percent of its budget, and its satellite programs, which would lose 22 percent, and which is where 90 percent of the information for weather forecasts come from.
I moved to the Northern Californian mountains from the flat, sea-level elevation of New York, where snow is an inconvenience that causes traffic and train delays, not avalanches and highway closures. I quickly learned that bringing up the weather is not a topic for awkward small talk, it's a real subject of interest for many people. Because knowing the forecast is important for staying safe in these parts.
At an industry conference two years ago, we were shown a video called Know Before You Go, which is an avalanche education video that gives a brief introduction on how to stay safe in the backcountry. The first scene was a harrowing avalanche burial filmed by a POV camera. As I watched a man emerge from beneath the snow with a scream that was part terror, part relief and fully-fueled by the adrenaline of dodging death, I realized just how little I understood about the mountains around me and how ignorant I was being to not find out more.
Private sector meteorologists and weather forecasters say they rely on information provided by NOAA and the National Weather Service for their work, according to USA Today. And this is no different for avalanche forecasting. The conference presentation I attended was given by the Sierra Avalanche Center (SAC), one of many avalanche forecasting centers that operate throughout the country. They are a partnership between the U.S. Forest Service, which provides the salaries for the forecasters, and a non-profit organization, which helps raise money for educational programs and other community resources.
As a *private sector* meteorologist, I depend heavily on availability of data like this to do my job in *energy.*— Matt Lanza (@mattlanza) March 4, 2017
The U.S. Forest Service employs the avalanche forecasters that provide the daily reports to me and my peers, which tell us the level of avalanche danger, as well as what type of problems to expect to encounter and in what areas. While many think that avalanche danger only exists in the backcountry, that is a dangerous misunderstanding. At ski resorts, ski patrol mitigates avalanche danger by creating controlled avalanches, to trigger the danger in a controlled environment so it doesn't happen when the mountain is open to the public.
But most people don't understand that they can not remove all of the danger.
As ski coaches who work with young kids, my colleagues and I know that we still need to be aware while skiing in bounds, especially since we are responsible for the safety of the kids we coach. Knowing the avalanche danger that day, and also being trained in noticing the signs of avalanche danger, and how to avoid high-risk areas is crucial to our safety even in the ski resort.
Without access to these tools, I worry there would be a level of uncertainty in my life that would make me uncomfortable not only to go into the backcountry, but just to get in my car.
It's hard to estimate exactly what services my community stands to lose. Despite my efforts to reach out to them, SAC forecasters declined to comment on the cuts. Additionally, NOAA also declined to be interviewed for this story because it was about a budgetary issue; the NOAA directed me to the Commerce Department, who did not respond to my request for comment.
Even for the casual visitor to this area, who is not concerned with venturing outside of the ski area boundaries or into challenging terrain, wind speed recorders, run by the National Weather Service, tell ski resort operators whether certain lifts are safe to run for skiers and riders. And just driving through the mountains in the winter can also be severely impacted by weather. It's important to pay attention to NWS alerts to know if road conditions will be affected by incoming storms. A roughly 100-mile long section of highway will frequently shut down in my area because of inclement road conditions, and roads that travel through slide areas will also close when avalanche danger is high. And that's not something Waze will help you anticipate.
SR-89 at Emerald Bay completely blocked. Find alternate route. pic.twitter.com/pLYSCQJ63q— CHP South Lake Tahoe (@CHPSouthLake) March 10, 2017
Thinking towards the long-term, the substantial cuts to the research and satellite arms of NOAA could be a very real detriment to the future of this country, according to many experts in the field.
Jane Lubchenco, NOAA administrator under President Barack Obama, told the Washington Post, “Cutting NOAA’s satellite budget will compromise NOAA’s mission of keeping Americans safe from extreme weather and providing forecasts that allow businesses and citizens to make smart plans."
My morning routine goes beyond making a cup of tea and scrolling through Twitter. It involves reading the avalanche forecast, checking the NWS weather alerts and sometimes looking up weather station data for temperatures and wind speed. Without access to these tools, I worry there would be a level of uncertainty in my life that would make me uncomfortable not only to go into the backcountry, but just to get in my car.