For years, the National Weather Service, fully focused on communicating about weather hazards, shied away from the climate change issue. Yet on Monday, the Weather Service highlighted the findings of a new Trump administration climate change report, one hour after President Trump had distanced himself from it.
The Weather Service’s decision to proactively cast light on the National Climate Assessment, prepared by 13 agencies across the government, marks a sharp pivot from its past.
The fact that it trumpeted the report on Monday, one hour after Trump told reporters “I don’t believe it,” makes the move even more surprising.
The Weather Service is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a leading contributor to the report, but was not among the primary offices that worked on it (a few of its scientists were contributors). Nevertheless, the Weather Service sent out three consecutive tweets Monday afternoon calling attention to the report’s findings.
The first tweet noted that temperatures in the United States had warmed 1.2 degrees over the past few decades and that additional warming of 3 to 12 degrees is expected by the end of the century. The second one shared observed and projected changes in heavy precipitation. The third said Atlantic and Pacific “hurricane rainfall and intensity are projected to increase, as are the frequency and severity of landfalling ‘atmospheric rivers’ on the West Coast.”
The Weather Service also posted about the report on Facebook, sharing a link to its executive summary.
Spokeswoman Susan Buchanan said in a statement that the Weather Service “strives to understand how various climate patterns influence the weather” and has close ties to the divisions of NOAA that conduct climate change research and that contributed to the report. But she said that “highlighting a few of the official weather-related findings ... on social media does not represent a change in our mission or communication philosophy.”
Even so, the dissemination of the report’s findings appears to be a departure from the past. Although Buchanan said the Weather Service has “always supported weather, water, and climate outreach efforts across NOAA,” she could only point to examples of a few sporadic tweets over the past year relaying information about recent U.S. and global temperature rankings. The tweets contained no information about the causes of the temperature change or any future projections. None of them include the term “climate change.”
Many climate scientists have long urged weather communicators to connect the dots between climate change and weather trends even as the Weather Service has steered clear. Climate change doubters, on the other hand, have resisted efforts from weather communicators to bring up the issue, imploring them to instead “stick to weather.”
J. Marshall Shepherd, a past president of the American Meteorological Society and professor of atmospheric science at the University of Georgia, said ignoring connections between weather and climate was “naive” given the current state of knowledge.
An author of the National Academy of Sciences report “Attribution of Extreme Weather Events in the Context of Climate Change,” Shepherd was encouraged that the Weather Service was finally making the link.
“I think it’s a step forward for the nation’s weather service to weigh in on climate given the National Academies report and a significant body of the literature showing linkages between weather and climate change,” he said.
The Weather Service, whose mission is to protect life and property, may have been reluctant to enter the climate change fray given the political overtones of the issue. Even though the issue of climate change’s effects on weather is a scientific one, public opinion on climate change is divided and heavily dependent on political persuasion.
But Wilbur Ross, secretary of the Department of Commerce, which oversees the Weather Service, committed to not playing politics with NOAA’s scientific information in his confirmation hearing. He stressed that his department would supply the public “with as much factual and accurate data as we have available” and that he had “no valid reason to keep peer-reviewed research from the public.”
David Titley, a previous senior official at NOAA who also is an author of the National Academies report, said he was pleased to see the Weather Service engaging on the climate change issue. He said that even though other parts of NOAA have historically conducted climate change outreach for the agency, the Weather Service is the best known and most trusted among the public.
“If the Weather Service put out some reporting or drew attention to the National Climate Assessment report, I would applaud that,” he said.