Preparedness & Recovery

2011's Weather Is a Precursor of Things to Come, says NOAA Assistant Administrator

John Hayes addresses how NOAA is keeping up with a warming climate and societal changes.

by / January 25, 2012
The EF-5 tornado on May 22, 2011, tore a path through Joplin, Mo., seven miles long and half a mile wide. Photo courtesy of Elissa Jun/FEMA Elissa Jun/FEMA

John L. "Jack" Hayes is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration assistant administrator for weather services and National Weather Service (NWS) director. He is responsible for an integrated weather services program; supporting the delivery of a variety of weather, water and climate services to government, industry and the general public, including the preparation and delivery of weather warnings and predictions; and the exchange of data products and forecasts with international organizations. He responded to a set of questions posed by Emergency Management magazine.

Weather-related disasters seem to be on the rise. How do you explain this?

In 2011, more than 1,100 people died in weather events and more than 8,000 were injured. The year also included at least 14 individual events — a record — that caused economic damages of $1 billion or more and carry a collective price tag of more than $55 billion. There is both a scientific and a societal explanation for these increased impacts. Scientifically speaking, we saw a range of short-term, cyclical climate factors in play, such as La Niña, which altered storm patterns. Events such as the southern drought contrasting the floods across the northern U.S., represent the extreme temperature and precipitation swings that climate scientists project will become more common in the future amid a warming climate. Society is also changing. The U.S. population has almost doubled since 1954, which corresponds with higher property and infrastructure values. Trends such as urban sprawl and conversion of rural land to suburban landscapes increase the likelihood that a tornado will impact densely populated areas. The wild weather of 2011 reminds us all of our increasing vulnerability and prompted an initiative to build a Weather-Ready Nation.

The 21st century is the digital age. What types of major improvements are being made today or are on the drawing board to modernize the national weather system?

Weather forecasts have improved dramatically in recent decades through investment in research and technology. An example of how research is coming to fruition, the NWS is in the process of upgrading its national network of Doppler radars to have dual-polarization technology. When this upgrade is completed in 2013, all radars will be more sophisticated with the ability to distinguish precipitation type [rain, snow, ice] and in many cases detect precisely where a tornado is on the ground by detecting debris being tossed by the vortex. This additional information will arm forecasters with the knowledge and confidence to issue more detailed alerts to save lives and protect property. We are also improving our satellite observation system with the [NASA-launched NPOESS Preparatory Project] polar-orbiting satellite. And this year we will begin construction on a National Water Center in Tuscaloosa, Ala., which will provide integrated and expansive water resources information to expand and improve river and flood forecasting, enhance water resource management, and accelerate the application of research to real world uses.

Weather warnings are critical to protecting people and property. What is the average time for severe weather warnings to be distributed once weather systems are detected?

Nationally, the average lead time for tornadoes is 12 to 14 minutes, but during the various outbreaks of severe weather in 2011, tornado warnings were issued with an average lead time of approximately 25 minutes and some exceeded 30 minutes. Not long ago, the average lead was half as long. Warnings for flash flooding, another leading cause of weather-related fatalities, have also improved greatly with the nationwide average lead time of one hour or more. We’ve made great strides in improving the reliability and lead times of “short-fuse” warnings for events such as tornadoes, flash floods and severe thunderstorms when every minute counts. And there’s great potential for further enhancements.

An effective warning requires that the threat be detected, a warning communicated and the people in the impacted area must take action to protect themselves. What is the NWS doing to get people to take action once they have been warned?

Last year, while the NWS issued accurate outlooks days in advance of severe weather events, issued watches hours in advance, and sounded warnings longer than the national average, there was still a tragic loss of life. The improvements we’ve made in predicting weather have enabled us to refocus our attention on the public’s response to warnings and alerts. Social science is part of the solution. By helping atmospheric scientists and the emergency management community better understand how weather information is received and what triggers people to take action, we can communicate the threat more effectively and save more lives.

What role, if any, is social media playing in how the NWS disseminates weather information and warnings?

Social media is steadily becoming an important tool in which the NWS communicates critical forecast information and provides a direct linkage between our local forecast offices and national centers to all audiences, especially the general public. Facebook has been adopted by our 122 local offices and our national page has more than 86,000 fans. We are currently prototyping Twitter for adoption. As a science and risk communication agency we must be methodical in evaluating new technologies to make sure they are both robust and help us accomplish our mission of saving lives and livelihoods.

What type of partnership would you like to foster with the broader emergency management community? What recommendations do you have for state and local emergency managers as it pertains to their local and regional weather forecast offices?

The emergency management community has always been a critical partner in saving lives and livelihoods. We know a weather-ready nation isn't possible without them, which is why we now have a NWS liaison position at FEMA’s national headquarters. We have also defined a new type of weather and water forecaster called an emergency response specialist. We’re testing this concept in select offices around the country to determine if it’s viable for broader deployment in other communities. Compliant with the National Incident Management System, the emergency response specialist will deploy with short notice to provide in-person, on-scene decision support during high-impact events. Our partnership with the emergency management community is based on an ongoing open dialog between local emergency managers and the local NWS warning coordination meteorologist, our primary contact for local emergency managers. The NWS StormReady program fosters this relationship. StormReady provides jurisdictions a standard of preparedness for hazardous weather and recognizes their hard work. Emergency managers work with their NWS local office to ensure they meet the guidelines necessary to become recognized as a StormReady site.

What worries you most about our federal national weather system?

These are challenging fiscal times for the nation and we cannot afford another full-scale modernization that transformed the National Weather Service in the 1980s and 1990s, nor is one necessary. But we need to continue to sustain and evolve critical infrastructure and staff readiness and do so methodically and responsibly. We’re doing just that through our Weather-Ready Nation initiative that will be cultivating and testing scientific advances in pilot projects that will allow us to build a little, test a little and field a little.

Problems can’t be addressed until they are recognized. Call it global warming or climate change, when do you think the scientific community will universally agree that global temperatures are rising and there will be negative impacts as a result?

Climate scientists agree on the facts. There are several trends over the past 50 to 100 years indicative of a warming atmosphere: average temperatures are rising, polar ice coverage is shrinking, and sea level is rising — just to name a few. In the U.S., 2011 was yet another warmer-than-average year, and severe weather and associated societal impacts increased.

In my 40 years of tracking the weather, I have never seen extreme weather like we had in 2011. With our changing climate, we can no longer think about severe weather as an inconvenience. We have seen the devastation with our own eyes and hope it doesn’t happen again. Let’s make 2012 the year that we all came together to build a Weather-Ready Nation.

For more about the Weather-Ready Nation initiative, please visit www.noaa.gov/wrn.
 

Eric Holdeman Contributing Writer

Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.

He can be reached by emailTwitter and Google+.