NOAA assistant administrators Timothy Gallaudet, left, and Neil Jacobs, right, at the National Hurricane Center in April 2018. Jacobs is taking on the role of the agency's acting head. (National Hurricane Center)

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will not debut its “next generation” weather forecasting model in March, as planned.

Meanwhile, it has named Neil Jacobs as the acting head of the agency, replacing retired Rear Adm. Timothy Gallaudet, who will step back into a supporting role.

The two actions are unrelated but call new attention to key challenges facing the agency: its forecasting and its leadership.

Forecast model delay

Currently, NOAA’s primary forecast model ranks third in the world in accuracy, lagging behind two European modeling systems.

The introduction of the new model is intended as the National Weather Service’s next step toward building the best weather prediction model in the world, a stated priority of the Trump administration.

The launch of the new model, which had been slated for March 20, was postponed because of “two issues” found during testing. Its forecasts for snow depth were “unrealistically high” and the model exhibited a “a cold bias in the lower atmosphere,” a memo from the Weather Service said. These issues were independently identified by private-sector forecasters and university researchers, and reported by the Capital Weather Gang in early February.

Time to work on and improve the model was lost during the 35-day partial Federal shutdown in late December and January. Before the shutdown, the model was scheduled to become operational in late January.

While the model undergoes further testing and evaluation, the memo said its implementation is “paused” with no new target date.

The new model, known as the GFS-FV3 (FV3 stands for Finite­ Volume Cubed-Sphere dynamical core), is an update to the current version of the GFS (Global Forecast System). Popularly known as the American model, the GFS has existed in various forms for more than 30 years.

During the testing phase, extended indefinitely, NOAA encourages feedback from users on the experimental version of the model, which is publicly available.

Despite the problems with the prediction of snow depth and cold, the memo said the new model “shows continued improvement over the legacy GFS for many forecast parameters.”

Neil Jacobs takes role as acting NOAA administrator

Less than a day before the model delay was announced, NOAA’s Jacobs emailed staff to inform them that he was stepping into the role of the acting head of the agency, at the request of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.

Both Jacobs and his predecessor, Gallaudet, have held the title as “acting” head only because Trump’s nominee for NOAA administrator, Barry Myers, has not been confirmed by the Senate.

Myers, who was previously chief executive at AccuWeather, is considered a controversial choice. He would become the first NOAA administrator in nearly 40 years who is not a scientist, and some have expressed concerns about possible conflicts of interest. AccuWeather, which is still owned and run by his brothers, relies heavily on NOAA data.

It is not clear whether Myers has the political support to get confirmed by the Senate, and NOAA may remain without a permanent head for the longest duration in its history.

While Jacobs takes the helm as acting head, Gallaudet — who was previously oceanographer of the Navy — will remain at NOAA under his same title but will have fewer administrative responsibilities.

“The change in leadership structure will allow Admiral Gallaudet to focus his time and effort on the Blue Economy priorities, such as seafood competitiveness, ocean exploration, maritime commerce, and recreation,” Jacobs’s email said.

Since taking their positions at NOAA, after being appointed by President Trump, Jacobs has focused on atmosphere and weather issues — the “dry side” of the agency — while Gallaudet has led ocean and fishery initiatives on the “wet side.” That dynamic is not expected to change.

Jacobs has championed improving the Weather Service’s forecast modeling. Under Jacobs, NOAA recently entered into an agreement with the National Center for Atmospheric Research to increase collaboration between forecasters and researchers in improving modeling, and is designing a plan for a community-based unified modeling program.

Jacobs has also worked toward the establishment of the Earth Prediction Innovation Center, aimed at further enhancing prediction capabilities, which was supported by the reauthorization of the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act recently signed into law by Trump.

Before his NOAA tenure, Jacobs was chief atmospheric scientist at Panasonic Avionics Corp., where he led forecast model development.