Monday, October 7, 2013

Implications of the "Shutdown" on the Weather Community and Beyond


As a leader in the weather and climate enterprise, I felt compelled to offer some real perspective on how U.S. citizens and colleagues are being affected by the Government Shutdown. I have argued in numerous blogs, interviews, and congressional briefings that our Federal weather and climate infrastructure should be valued as critical national assets similar to our homeland security and military resources.   Superstorm Sandy, Moore/El Reno tornadoes, Colorado Floods, and numerous weather events affect American lives, families, and property.

Let me clearly emphasize that our National Weather Service colleagues are on the job (thank you), but there are several "catches" as they have some limitations and are working on the "promise of pay" (more on this later in the text). As we approach the 1-year anniversary of Sandy, I am amazed at how soon we forget valuable lessons.

Lesson 1-At the end of Sandy, there was an outcry in some circles about the quality of U.S. weather models relative to our European counterparts. While this was somewhat overplayed, ironically, we now have good momentum towards ensuring that U.S. modeling capacity is the best in the world. Yet, many of our colleagues working on U.S. weather model improvements (e.g., GFS, WRF, and storm surge) are at home. If the shutdown persists, it would be hard not to wonder if some improvement is being delayed that could save a life in 2015.

Lesson 2-I have commented many times about possible delays or gaps in our national weather satellite program.  The Government Accountability Office (GAO) even identified this problem as a high-risk challenge. If the shutdown persists, I would imagine that this adds to the potential for delays or a gap.  Last week, I used NOAA and NASA satellite data to monitor Tropical Storm Karen, a record Blizzard, severe storms, and Santa Ana wind/wildfire-conducive conditions.

Lesson 3-I have collected many “shutdown stories” from colleagues within the field or my own observations. Herein, I provide some of the implications of these stories:

 A popular tool for severe weather and winter weather forecasting,  Bufkit, used by many TV and operational meteorologists has not worked for some after re-installation. This is likely because it may be trying to query data from NOAA websites that are offline.

Though many NWS forecast office internet sites are up, I find it amazing that the @NOAA Twitter feed and NOAA National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) website are down. I am sure that many non-weather experts, who may be unfamiliar with more specific sites that I am, consume valuable information from the @NOAA Twitter feed in hazardous situations. I know that many broadcasters, forecasters, writers, students, and researchers are literally unable to get work done because the NCDC website is down.

On a related noted, I was unable to assign 2 assignments in my Satellite Meteorology class this week because it requires the NASA Giovanni website, currently down. I typically try to infuse real world, current topics in my instructional philosophy, and now my students at the University are suffering. Several colleagues have shared frustratingly similar stories. For example, one colleague writes, “I have been unable to teach MOS guidance to students  as this data lies on a non-essential server. MOS guidance has a large impact on our students' understanding of statistics and probabilistic weather guidance.” Yet, we keep asking why U.S. students are lagging in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. These situations certainly do not help.

Research is also being impacted because many valuable datasets from NASA, NOAA, and other agencies are not available. I personally have one project on hold because I cannot access a valuable dataset from NASA. One colleague also correctly notes that NSF and many scientific granting agencies are unable to process grants to universities. This means that students, which depend on the grants for their financial support, may be without funding.

Colleagues in the Operational/NWS sector have also expressed concern about equipment maintenance. NWS weather instruments, Doppler radars, and computers do break (duh!), yet, it is my understanding that only emergency (rather than routine) maintenance is allowed.

Many colleagues have expressed concerned about the inability to attend the upcoming National Weather Association (NWA) meeting in Charleston, South Carolina. Scientific meetings are critical for the exchange of new knowledge, best practices, and collaborations. As President of the American Meteorological Society (AMS), many of our planning meetings for the 2014 AMS Annual Meeting (February) have been delayed or postponed because so many of the valuable leadership come from our federal partners.

Much of NOAA and NWS outreach related activities have been halted during the shutdown. This is very shortsighted. Efforts like Weather-Ready Nation have the potential to save U.S. citizens’ lives. With recent weather hazards like Sandy or the Moore/El Reno tornadoes, many of the challenges related to protecting life and property were not related to poor forecasting. In fact, the forecasts, science, and technology did quite well. The challenges that I saw were related to communications, perceptions of the hazard, and other human dimension issues. This is where outreach (school visits, websites, displays in the community, StormReady programs, etc.) is valuable to the public.

One recent doctoral student shared the following with me, “I recently completed my PHD  and applied for a NASA Postdoctoral program…..They were supposed to give me an answer by October. Since NASA is shutdown my life is also shutdown and with it all my dreams of continuing a career as a researcher. As a young scientist who want to serve and contribute to science this is just frustrating….”  This comment should be a big red flag because I am hearing more and more from our best and brightest students that they want to avoid the federal sector because of the lack of support/respect, restrictions on travel to critical meetings, and the prospect of having to working “pro-bono”. We are jeopardizing our future if our best young talent is already making such assessments.

My final point comes from a very na├»ve comment by a friend. The friend said, “well we are still getting our weather forecasts and warnings and I still have the information from TV.” I have a couple of key points in the dissection of this statement. First, many of our weather colleagues at NWS, National Hurricane Center, and FEMA (some called back after multiple weather threats appeared last week in the U.S.) are working on the “promise of pay”. Even with the “promise of pay”, one thing that is promised is that their mortgage is still due, kids will still get sick, and groceries are needed now. Second, private sector companies and broadcast stations are essential partners in the weather enterprise. However, most of the satellite, Doppler radar, and observational data are from federal sources. The major forecast models are run at NOAA facilities. Federal predictions centers and Forecast Offices issue warnings. I can’t imagine a major potato chip maker saying that it could survive without potato farms. The point  herein is that  there is a vibrant public-private-academic partnership and each component is essential.

So even as I type this commentary, I just saw a story about the dedication of NWS employees walking to work during the recent Blizzard. Thank you, Thank you, Thank You, and 100 times Thank You. I value the contributions of our federal work force. And it is “essential” that all citizens value it as well. Their lives depend on it, and they may not even know it.