Why the National Weather Service should not be consolidated

Guest commentary

I have read with more than a little disappointment your [Jason Samenow's] recommendation … that forecast offices be consolidated[*]. This recommendation has been rejected before by Congress and for good reasons.

As you may recall, in 2005 the NWS began to develop a proposal to consolidate forecast offices under the guise of a new “Concept of Operations” or “CONOPS.” The Comptroller General issued a report critical of the agency’s efforts because it had no defined metrics to ensure that CONOPS would not result in a degradation of services or even that it would produce cost savings. GAO-06-792 (July 2006). Congress was more direct. Following a set of hearings that were critical of the NWS’s plans, Congress, in the final Conference Report accompanying the Department of Commerce appropriations act for 2006, directed that “no funds shall be used to implement a plan to consolidate, regionalize, or reduce service hours at Weather Service forecast offices.” H. Rept. 109-272, 109th Cong., 1st Sess. at 159.

In 1982, the National Advisory Committee on Oceans and Atmospheres sent a special report to Congress and the President in which it was highly critical of ongoing efforts to close weather offices. Although it acknowledged that some weather stations could be closed because their observational services were redundant,

 . . . equivalent quality local weather services cannot, in most cases, be provided by consolidating weather forecasting functions at fewer weather stations, each of which would have a broader geographical responsibility. There is sufficient evidence about the relationship between accuracy of weather forecasts and services to the community, and remoteness from the geographical location for which forecasts and the service are being provided to warrant concern. Weather forecast accuracy and utility generally deteriorate with distance from the location for which forecasts are made. . . .

 

It is also evident that an intimate knowledge of the local terrain and local activities that might be sensitive to weather phenomena are important in providing the kinds of services communities need for protection. . . .

 

Effectiveness is the “name of the game” when protecting the public against the hazards of Nature. We are deeply concerned that in the drive to reduce costs and personnel in the NWS by reducing the number of weather stations, the effectiveness of that service is being dangerously reduced.

 

- NACOA, The Future of the Nation’s Weather Services, (1982) at 22-23.

In 1996, Professors Roebber, Bosart and Forbes published a study in an AMS journal that concluded that experienced forecasters are able to use regional knowledge to their advantage in forecasting temperature and precipitation amount. They wrote that

. . .  forecasters typically learn how to interpret and modify the output of numerical models in light of their knowledge of local peculiarities of the weather and that this knowledge base undoubtedly becomes degraded as one moves away from the local area. Thus, one might expect that a highly experienced forecaster’s skill would trace out a rapidly declining curve as a function of distance from the forecast site.

 

Roebber, P.J, L.F. Bosart and G.J. Forbes, 1996: Does Distance from the Forecast Site Affect Skill?, Wea. Forecasting, 11, 582, 588.

Further research by Professor Roebber found strong evidence that a transition from local to regional scale forecasting degrades forecast skill in forecasting severe weather and precipitation, and that this was most apparent in warm season precipitation when convection dominates. Roebber, P.J, Locality and Forecast Skill – Heavy Precipitation and Severe Weather, (2006).

In follow up research, Professor Roebber and an associate studied the NWS’s proposal to consolidate forecasting operations. They concluded that there was evidence “that a transition from local to regional scale forecasting of heavy precipitation would lead to a reduction in accuracy,” and confirmed Robber’s earlier conclusions that “local knowledge can be an important contributing factor when highly skilled forecasters construct forecasts.” They wrote that the NWS’s plans to off-load forecasting functions to neighboring offices during high impact events involves a “tradeoff [that] concerns necessarily forecasting at a greater distance from the verification location and a potential loss of forecast accuracy, as aspect that appears neglected in these discussions.” Roebber, P.J and Butt, M.R., Managing Forecast Accuracy – The Effect of Regionalization on Forecast Performance (2008).

In its final recent report on the NWS Modernization, the NRC acknowledged that “[l]ocal knowledge of phenomena, terrain, and infrastructure is an important factor in forecasting, and needs to be accounted for in any potential regionalization of functions.”

Moreover, consolidation of WFOs will achieve no savings unless you reduce the number of forecasters accordingly. But then you loose the ability to work with local emergency management personnel, and you just have to let the models go out as the forecast without any intervention because there is just so much work a forecaster can do each shift. When AWIPS was implemented in Alaska, they set up two forecast domains at the Anchorage Forecast Office (every other office is responsible for one domain) and staffed it with 15 forecasters instead of the usual ten (10 forecasters allows two per shift on rotating work schedules). They found out that three forecaster per shift could not do twice the work (forecast sets) that two forecasters do elsewhere, and eventually agreed with NWSEO to increase the staff to 20 forecasters so that, like everywhere else, there are two forecasters per forecast domain. So, if you consolidate 122 forecast offices into say, half that number, you are still going to need the same number of forecasters if you want the same work product and you have actually increased your costs by closing facilities and opening bigger ones and moving staff. It’s just doesn’t work.

Now there are many folks at NOAA who haven’t a clue how the NWS really works who would love to see this because they institutionally hate the NWS (and NWSEO) and would like to move resources to other NOAA line offices. I fear they will seize on your comments, which are not backed by any science.

The author, Richard Hirn, is general counsel and legislative director of the National Weather Service Employees Organization, a labor union.

[*Note of clarification from Jason Samenow: In the piece referred to by Richard Hirn, I did not specifically call for the consolidation of NWS offices.  Rather, I wrote: "And to be a bit provocative, should the leadership (if it’s not already) consider consolidation of offices as a solution and/or contracting out certain functions? That may be necessary."]

Also on Capital Weather Gang

An app that predicts homeruns based on the weather