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NOAA’s support of Trump over its own scientists provokes uproar in weather community

Hurricane Dorian seen via a NOAA satellite on Sept. 6, 2019. (NOAA/RAMMB) (NOAA/RAMMB)
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This story has been updated to include a statement from the American Meteorological Society on the matter.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s decision to back President Trump instead of its own scientists on the question of whether Alabama was at significant risk from Hurricane Dorian has led to widespread outrage in the broader weather community.

Weather forecasters inside and outside the government and former leaders of NOAA and the National Weather Service have spoken out against the NOAA action.

Late Friday afternoon, NOAA released a statement siding with Trump’s Sept. 1 assertion that Alabama “would most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated” by Hurricane Dorian, even after its own National Weather Service office in Birmingham had accurately tweeted: "Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian.”

The unsigned NOAA release, attributed to an agency “spokesperson,” specifically rebuked the Birmingham office, stating it “spoke in absolute terms that were inconsistent with probabilities from the best forecast products available.”

NOAA backs Trump on Alabama hurricane forecast, rebukes Weather Service for accurately contradicting him

The American Meteorological Society, the professional association of atmospheric scientists and weather forecasters, issued a statement of support for Weather Service employees. " AMS believes the criticism of the Birmingham forecast office is unwarranted; rather they should have been commended for their quick action based on science in clearly communicating the lack of threat to the citizens of Alabama," the statement said.

Many critics say NOAA’s decision to back Trump is putting politics before facts and undermining forecasters’ ability to carry out their mission to protect life and property, while eroding public trust. They also worry about how the statement will affect Weather Service forecasters’ morale.

Three former NOAA heads have expressed this concern. Kathryn Sullivan, a former NASA astronaut who ran the agency under President Barack Obama, said that throughout NOAA’s history, the agency — including its political appointees — has committed "to not let any political factors sway the scientific credibility and clarity of Weather Service forecasts and warnings.”

She stated: “The anonymous and disingenuous statement NOAA tweeted out is a major breach of scientific integrity that damages the NWS and stains the agency’s leadership.”

Jane Lubchenco, who preceded Sullivan as NOAA administrator under Obama, told Capital Weather Gang via email: “This looks like classic politically motivated obfuscation to justify inaccurate statements made by the boss. It is truly sad to see political appointees undermining the superb, life-saving work of NOAA’s talented and dedicated career servants.”

And James Baker, who headed NOAA under President Bill Clinton, wrote in an email that the agency has an obligation to back its scientists. “The role of NOAA and any higher level oversight is to support, not to rebuke, the key message that the experts have carefully developed,” he said. “In this case, NOAA and the White House should have focused on the potential East Coast damages which were accurately forecast.”

While not taking sides on the matter, a fourth NOAA head, Vice Adm. Conrad Lautenbacher, who served under President George W. Bush, commented that he has full confidence in the National Weather Service. “The NWS meteorology experts retain my complete faith providing forecasts and particularly with regard to severe weather events!” he wrote in a message to the Capital Weather Gang.

Late-night hosts skewered President Trump on Sept. 4 over a doctored Hurricane Dorian forecast map presented during a news conference. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

Retired National Weather Service leaders who were not political appointees struck a similar chord to Sullivan, Lubchenco and Baker, and were even more candid.

“The recent communications by a ‘NOAA Spokesman’ which tried to rewrite history in deplorable. Chastising WFO Birmingham for correctly pointing out that there was no danger to Alabama was unconscionable,” wrote Joe Friday, using the acronym for the Weather Service forecast office. Friday led the Weather Service from 1988 to 1997.

“I fear such actions as this unsigned communication will negatively impact NWS’s ability to carry out their mission,” Friday wrote.

In addition, Bill Read, who headed the National Hurricane Center — overseen by the Weather Service — from 2007 to 2012, called NOAA’s statement “embarrassing,” and said it demonstrated a lack of understanding of forecast information.

“What the Birmingham NWS office sent out Sunday morning was correct and served the public well,” Read wrote. “It clearly let the public know that they were not at risk from the impacts of Hurricane Dorian.”

One of the strongest reactions from a former NOAA official came from David Titley, an atmospheric scientist who served as the chief operating officer of NOAA in 2012 and 2013. After reviewing NOAA’s statement, he tweeted: “Perhaps the darkest day ever for leadership. Don’t know how they will ever look their workforce in the eye again. Moral cowardice."

The NOAA statement late Friday afternoon capped off a week in which Trump went to unusual lengths to justify his Alabama forecast tweet.

President Trump on Sept. 4 held up a map of Hurricane Dorian featuring an apparent Sharpie-drawn circle to falsely extend its projected path. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

The NOAA statement on Friday made no reference to the fact that when Trump tweeted that Alabama was at risk, the state was not in the National Hurricane Center’s “cone of uncertainty” -- the zone where forecasters determine the storm is most likely to track. Alabama had also not appeared in the cone in the days before that.

Trump’s tweet that Alabama would be affected by the storm gained the national spotlight on Wednesday when he presented a modified version of the forecast cone from Aug. 29. The graphic showed the cone extended into Alabama — hand-drawn, using a Sharpie.

President Trump showed a doctored hurricane chart. Was it to cover up for ‘Alabama’ Twitter flub?

The doctored map went viral, becoming a source of ridicule among many political pundits and late-night talk-show hosts, who accused the president of dishonesty.

Asked on Sept. 4 about a map of Hurricane Dorian that appeared to be altered by a Sharpie, President Trump said he wasn’t aware of it. (Video: The Washington Post)

In the face of criticism about the modified map, Trump fired off additional tweets on Wednesday and Thursday, insisting that Alabama had been at risk all along and including a map from Aug. 29 depicting a small possibility that Alabama would see tropical-storm-force winds. The White House homeland security and counterterrorism adviser issue a statement backing the president’s forecast.

Reactions from the rank and file

Even some Weather Service employees spoke out against their parent agency.

“I am proud to work for @NWS. You will not find a more dedicated bunch, committed to saving lives and helping communities,” tweeted Elizabeth Leitman, a severe-weather forecaster at the Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla. “But I am utterly disappointed and embarrassed by our parent agency’s actions today. The damage done to relationships built on trust is worrisome at best.”

Dan Sobien, president of the National Weather Service’s labor union, unleashed a scathing response on social media.

“I have never been so embarrassed by NOAA. What they did is just disgusting,” he tweeted.

“Let me assure you the hard working employees of the NWS had nothing to do with the utterly disgusting and disingenuous tweet sent out by NOAA management tonight,” he added in a separate tweet.

Reactions from forecasters in the private sector

Numerous scientists outside the government, including researchers and broadcast meteorologists, voiced their displeasure over the NOAA statement and simultaneously their support for their colleagues at the Weather Service.

Antonio Busalacchi, president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, put it bluntly in an email. "It is patently obvious the forecast guidance from the Birmingham office was spot on,” he said.

“The tweet from NWS Birmingham was spot on and accurate,” tweeted James Spann, a broadcast meteorologist in Birmingham, adored and trusted by his viewers for his wall-to-wall coverage during the deadly 2011 tornado outbreak in Alabama. “If they are coming after them, they might as well come after me. How in the world has it come to this?”

Marshall Shepherd, a professor at the University of Georgia and past president of the American Meteorological Society, called NOAA’s response “dangerous.”

“The people at NWS Birmingham were adhering to their mission of protecting life and property which is to give critical weather information,” Shepherd said. “I am concerned about how this affects the morale across the NWS.”

Becky DePodwin, who works at AccuWeather, a private forecasting company, echoed Shepherd’s concerns about morale in a tweet and worried that NOAA’s actions could affect how the public views weather forecasts.

“The worst part about this whole ridiculous thing is the damage it’s done to public trust in meteorologists,” she tweeted. “I’m so incredibly upset, disheartened, angry, and baffled. These are absurd times, my friends. Hang in there.”

Correction: This article originally indicated David Titley was a politically-appointed official at NOAA. He was actually a career employee.