Friday, March 29, 2013

NOAA Hiring Freezes, Travel Restrictions: Not Alarmist Just Reality-Our Weather Forecast Can Get Worse and Jeopardize US Public

This week NOAA, also the parent agency for the National Weather Service (NWS), announced a hiring freeze at a time when its vacancy rate is already around 10%. I understand that this number is near 20% for the Washington DC area NWS Office. At this point, pause and consider public safety. As we enter the severe weather/tornado seasons, the Sequester has forced the hand of our NOAA management and possibly jeopardized the American public's safety, stifled scientific capacity, obliterated morale within NOAA/NWS, and dampened hopes for the next generation of federal meteorological workforce.  Beyond safety, we have increasingly clear evidence that weather is important to our economy (see commentary by me and Nancy Colleton on the "next Commerce Secretary" at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nancy-colleton/the-next-secretary-commerce_b_2807671.html). Now to be clear, I know, personally, the senior level managers at NOAA/NWS very well.  I know they will do everything within their power to adjust and mitigate impact. This commentary is really not about them. 

It is simply important to understand that NOAA/NWS functions are public services vital to the Nation. Like our dedicated military, border patrol agents, police officers, and firefighters, NOAA employees are providing a service that affects our lives every day, including warnings and alerts. A community would be outraged at cuts to a Fire Station station staff near them, particularly at a time when a rash of arson incidents were happening. I hope you get the point I am making. Additionally, NOAA/NWS personnel are increasingly missing as subject matter experts for major Emergency Management training and conferences.

Further, the vibrant and critical private weather enterprise adds value based on data, models, and warnings that come from the weather service. To elucidate the federal-private relationship, I have often joked that NOAA is to the private sector weather enterprise, what the potato farmer is to a company that makes French Fries. It is a vital partnership, which includes research and applications from academic partners as well. The American Meteorological Society's Washington Forum will bring together the sectors for a vital discussion next week (http://www.ametsoc.org/meet/fainst/2013washingtonforum.html) Additionally, ongoing discussions about a Weather Commission are increasingly important (http://weathercoalition.org/).

I am fearful of what is happening in our community with draconian sequester cuts, challenges to travel/science meeting attendance (I spoke on this last week in a blog at the AMS Front Page, http://blog.ametsoc.org/columnists/for-science-and-discovery-videoconferencing-wont-get-it/), and other stresses on science/R&D  support within the National Weather Service/NOAA (journal publications, fees, etc). If you couple this with looming concerns about weather satellite gaps, computing capacity to support advanced modeling, and employee morale, we are slipping down a slippery slope of "eroding" the U.S. federal weather enterprise. However, since industry, academia, and federal agencies work closely together, these effects will ripple throughout the broader community. 

During a recent interview on CNN, today's interview, I discussed the Arctic Oscillation, Blocking Highs, and a high resolution RPM model forecast.  The knowledge and capabilities related to these discussions emerged from years of research, development, collaborative sharing via meetings, and investments. The public may take for granted a tornado warning (probably from a Doppler indicated signature) or satellite loop of an approaching hurricane. Likewise, the public probably just assumes that they will have 5-9 day warning of storms like Sandy; 15-60 minutes lead time for tornadic storms approaching their home; an airline with appropriate data for safe air travel; or a military with reliable information to avoid hazardous weather on a mission protecting our freedom. However, these capabilities "can" and "will" worsen/degrade if we cut weather balloon launches, cut investments in the latest computing technology for our models, reduce Doppler radar maintenance, delay satellite launches, or shatter employee morale. We are accustom to progress, innovation, and advancement and have come to expect it. I am honestly concerned that we will regress in capability and this will jeopardize lives, property, and our security. Anyone that knows me, understands that I am not an "over-the-top," hyperbolic person. I just call things as I see them. And by the way, I have not even spoken about the challenges that a changing climate adds to the weather mix.

 As a Professor of Geography (http://geography.uga.edu/) and Director of University of Georgia's Atmospheric Sciences Program (http://atsc.uga.edu/), I see young, vibrant, and talented students everyday that embody the next generation weather enterprise. They are taking notice of what is happening, and I believe this seriously jeopardizes our future workforce.

As we enter the active spring tornado season, let's hope the sequester season ends, before the hurricane season begins.

End Note: I am aware of the challenges related to travel and emissions. Three points are worth noting:  1. AMS has a Green Meetings initiatives (http://www.ametsoc.org/meet/greenconferenceguidelines.html), 2. Large shifts to videoconferencing are not completely immune as energy is still required to support increased computing/IT requirements for these activities, and 3. Videoconferencing may be highly appropriate for smaller committee and board type meetings but not large scientific meetings, which was the point of my aforementioned blog on the Front Page.

3 comments:

  1. Marshall - Great post. I'm in total agreement, and worry about declining abilities to provide forecasts. Another troubling issue in addition to staffing, forecasting, modeling, and balloonsondes is building and launching weather satellites, and we've seen delays. When GOES-13 went out for awhile last year, and GOES-14 stepped in, it was frightening to know that there was no other back up.

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  2. Great post. What is the next course of action? What can an individual do to try and help?

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