'Degradation': Storm Models Becoming Less Accurate as Government Shutdown Continues

The National Weather Service and FEMA are still protecting life and limb, but research has stalled, meetings with local officials are being canceled, and some general upkeep is being ignored.

by Steve Hardy, The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. / January 22, 2019
TNS

(TNS) - Hurricane season may be months away, but this is an important time of year for meteorologists to perform maintenance on their observation equipment and improve the models used to forecast storms — work that isn't happening amid the ongoing federal government shutdown.

Should work furloughs continue, offices may be short-staffed as Louisiana enters the tempestuous spring season of tornadoes and floods, the latter of which could be especially bad this year.

The National Weather Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency are still protecting life and limb, but research has stalled, meetings with local officials are being canceled, and some general upkeep is being ignored.

Agency media officials contacted for comment were either furloughed or responded with brief statements stating that emergency operations would continue during the shutdown.

About 700 federal scientists missed the annual American Meteorological Society conference earlier this month in Phoenix because of travel restrictions during the government shutdown, according to the organization. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association — which runs the National Weather Service — and NASA were most heavily affected.

"We definitely missed having our federal colleagues there," said LSU geography professor Kristine DeLong, who attended.

Every year, researchers from the government, universities and private companies speak at the conference about how their storm prediction models have fared and discuss ways to improve their forecasting of natural disasters.

"That exchange of information is not happening, unfortunately," DeLong said.

American authorities have long had a friendly competition with scientists at the European Centre for Mid-Range Weather Forecasts. In the past, the two sides have been neck and neck when it came to predicting the paths of storms such as hurricanes, but as the American version slogs on without improvement, "there is a sense that the U.S. model is lagging behind. ... We've actually seen some degradation," said Keith Seitter, executive director of the American Meteorological Society.

For example, the model requires billions of data points from temperature, pressure and other meteorological readings around the world. Now, weather observers in other countries are updating the way they record data, Seitter said. Those changes aren't being tracked in the U.S. model, so it has to ignore that information.

"Whenever you take away observations, the product is less good," he said.

Authorities were quick to commend the meteorologists who are still working without pay to provide local weather outlooks.

"We're here 24/7. ... We have everything that we normally have here. We're running no different than we were a month ago," said Ben Schott, meteorologist in charge at the weather service's Slidell office, which produces forecasts for Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

State climatologist Barry Keim said he's still receiving federal outlooks for thunderstorms, tornadoes, drought and the like. Some information, such as long-term weather patterns from the National Centers for Environmental Information, isn't available though.

East Baton Rouge Parish emergency preparedness director Clay Rives said his office is still receiving daily forecasts. He's grateful federal meteorologists are still picking up the phone but hopes they're back up to full strength by spring. Historically, tornadoes become more frequent by March, for one.

But the bigger concern is flooding. The Mississippi River already hit flood stage in Baton Rouge once this year, and the spring swell looks like it will be pronounced.

"It is probable that we're going to have issues with water that we're going to have to deal with. ... It could impact us if (the Weather Service is) not at 100 percent capacity," Rives said.

"Any time you're not fully staffed it's going to affect you. ... We all pull our data from the NWS."

It will be harder to tell the effects on forecasts for faster-forming phenomena like flash floods and tornadoes, Seitter said.

The staffing issues caused by the shutdown are forcing agencies to stretch and remove a lot of the safety checks that are normally in place.

"We really are pushing a lot of these things to the limit. ... There's a lot of stress on that system right now," Seitter said.

That could mean that someone commits an error and makes a worse prediction than he or she otherwise would have. Such mistakes are subtle — perhaps not as bad as an overworked Transportation Security Administration officer failing to detect a weapon — but potentially dangerous nonetheless, Seitter said.

Of course, an accurate forecast is only the first step. State and local officials have to warn constituents about dangers such as a flood and also organize evacuations and run other emergency operations. FEMA schedules meetings to help authorities interpret forecasts and use them to guide decisions on the ground.

Robby Miller was supposed to be at one of those meetings last week.

The Tangipahoa Parish president was one of five Louisiana officials preparing to travel to the National Hurricane Center in Miami for training before the shutdown canceled it.

Mike Steele, spokesman for the state emergency preparedness office, attended training four years ago. The sessions aren't meant to give a preview of the upcoming hurricane season, but they teach a bit of the science behind the current models and explain how meteorologists anticipate features like storm surges. The state tries to send people who explain emergency procedures to the public and media, Steele said.

He hopes and expects the training session to be rescheduled.

Miller already presided over two bad floods during his first year in office — 2016. He's confident in his staff but said it's never bad to get a refresher and learn about the most recent developments.

"Obviously (the training) would have made us better for this year. ... The more you go over something, the better you get," he said.

Beyond the shutdown and past this summer's hurricane season, meteorologists worry about the impact the shutdown will have on the next generation of their profession. Budding scientists may not want to take a job with NASA or the National Weather Service when they see professionals turned away from the office or being asked to work without pay, several said.

Graduate students were disappointed when they didn't have an opportunity to network with federal meteorologists at this month's conference, DeLong said.

People don't take government work because it's financially lucrative; they do so because they want to use their skills to help people, Seitter said.

If the shutdown winds up turning young people off a federal career in science, that would deal an "unfortunate and really long-lasting impact," he said.

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