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NOAA’s Acting Head Addresses Storm over Dorian Forecasts

Neil Jacobs said that the Trump administration is committed to the important mission of weather forecasting, while also stating that the weather service team has his and the department’s full support.

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“Weather should not be a partisan issue,” Neil Jacobs, acting administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said on 10 September, publicly addressing for the first time a controversy about the forecasting of Hurricane Dorian, according to a NOAA spokesperson.

The issue that has engulfed NOAA in political controversy began with President Donald Trump tweeting outdated information that Alabama was threatened by Hurricane Dorian. In response to the president’s tweets, the Birmingham, Ala., office of NOAA’s National Weather Service (NWS) stated that “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian.”

A 6 September NOAA statement said that the hurricane forecasting provided to the president demonstrated that strong winds from the hurricane could have affected Alabama. That statement said, “The Birmingham National Weather Service’s Sunday morning tweet spoke in absolute terms that were inconsistent with probabilities from the best forecast products available at the time.”

A 9 September article in the New York Times reported that Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross threatened to fire top NOAA employees after the Birmingham office published its tweet. (The Department of Commerce is NOAA’s parent agency.)

A number of prominent scientists, including three former NOAA administrators, have expressed their concern that political appointees should not overrule scientists. David Titley, who formerly served in the chief operating officer position at NOAA, tweeted about the 6 September NOAA statement, “Perhaps the darkest day ever for @noaa leadership. Don’t know how they will ever look their workforce in the eye again. Moral cowardice.”

Jacobs Pledges Full Support to Weather Service

Speaking at the annual meeting of the National Weather Association in Huntsville, Ala., Jacobs addressed the controversy. “The weather service team has my full support and the support of the department,” he said. “I’ll do everything I can to support you and your critical mission to protect life and property of the American people.”

Jacobs said that the purpose of NOAA’s 6 September statement was to clarify the technical aspects of the potential impacts of Dorian. “What it did not say, however, is that we understand and fully support the good intent of the Birmingham weather office, which was to calm fears in support of public safety. I’m proud of the outstanding work performed by all of the weather forecast offices.”

He added, “There is no pressure to change how you forecast risk into the future. No one’s job is under threat. Not mine. Not yours. The weather service team has my full support and the support of the department.”

Jacobs said that at one point, Alabama was in the hurricane forecast mix, as was the rest of the Southeast. He also said that the Trump administration “is committed” to the important mission of weather forecasting, including how forecasts are communicated.

One lesson he learned from the incident, Jacobs said, is that “from now on, the National Weather Service should be at the table with emergency managers and FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] at all briefings. This is critically important. If we are going to be analyzing forecast output, we need somebody there who understands how to interpret it.”

Jacobs added that he hopes that with the current elevated interest in forecasting “will come elevated funding to overcome the challenges we face, whether it’s numerical weather prediction, high-performance computing, or dissemination.”

House Science Committee Pursues Issue

Also on Tuesday, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, said that her committee is actively pursuing the Dorian forecast uproar.

“I am extremely disturbed by the directive that NOAA leadership sent on September 6, which threatens the integrity and public trust of weather forecasts at the peak of Hurricane season. I am even more distressed to learn that political interference from the Secretary of Commerce may be behind the directive,” Johnson said in a statement.

Johnson added that the House Science Committee “will pursue this issue and we expect full cooperation from the Department of Commerce in our efforts. I would remind Department employees of the whistleblower protections afforded them by law. Any employees with information are welcome to share anonymously via the Committee Whistleblower Page.”

On 5 September, Johnson issued a statement expressing concern about President Trump holding an outdated forecast of Hurricane Dorian in a 4 September tweet issued by the White House. The map “appeared to have been modified to suggest a forecasted impact to Alabama.”

“In times of emergency, the American public need to have confidence in the information being provided by the White House, and misrepresentation of National Weather Service (NWS) forecasts is especially disturbing when it concerns an ongoing natural disaster that has already killed twenty people,” Johnson said.

Also on Tuesday, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), the ranking Democrat on a Senate committee that oversees funding for NOAA, called for an inspector general investigation into whether NOAA’s 6 September statement violated the agency’s scientific integrity code. “I believe that NOAA released this statement to defend the President’s position, while ignoring the best available science. This statement violates NOAA’s internal scientific integrity order,” Shaheen wrote in a letter.

On 9 September, several members of Congress, including Reps. Don Beyer (D-Va.) and Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), called for Commerce Secretary Ross to resign.

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2019), NOAA’s acting head addresses storm over Dorian forecasts, Eos, 100, https://doi.org/10.1029/2019EO132743. Published on 10 September 2019.
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