The United States enjoys the best weather services in the world. While there is certainly room for improvement, forecasting has improved remarkably over the past decades. This was clearly demonstrated as Hurricane Dorian approached the southeastern coast. A surgically precise evacuation process, based on warnings from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, saved millions of dollars in evacuation expense. This was the strongest hurricane to get incredibly close to the contiguous United States in more than 80 years.
Dorian edged within 150 miles of the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area as a Category 5 storm, yet the only evacuations required were for coastal counties farther north, including locations at risk of storm surge in North Carolina. Historic surge flooding occurred at North Carolina’s Ocracoke Island, testifying to the threat Dorian posed.
Advances in services have been enabled by thousands of professionals from private and academic sectors working together to advance science and services. Collectively, we refer to this as the U.S. weather enterprise.
Two weeks ago, the weather enterprise took a hit. On Sept. 1, President Trump incorrectly tweeted Alabama would “most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated.” Fortunately, that misinformation was quickly rectified by the Birmingham National Weather Service (NWS) forecast office, which is under the auspices of the NOAA.
On Sept. 6, though, an unsigned NOAA release inappropriately highlighted the minimal chance of tropical-storm-force winds that existed in far southeastern Alabama on Sept. 1. Most egregiously, it chastised the NWS Birmingham forecast office for correcting the misinformation from Trump and reassuring its constituents that they faced no serious threat from Dorian. This NOAA release was not based on sound science, or good management practices for that matter.
The consequences are twofold. First, the statement has created a morale problem within the NOAA and could ultimately hinder its chances of attracting world-class talent. The virtually unanimous outcry from the weather community, and staff-supportive actions from NOAA leaders, may help to repair this damage. But we must recognize that this misguided action also threatens to undermine public trust in our nation’s weather warning services.
Recent surveys indicate members of the public are very trusting of the NWS. A yearly nationwide severe weather survey by Joseph Ripberger and his colleagues at the University of Oklahoma shows roughly 80 percent of people have “high” or “complete” trust in the NWS. There is also a long line of research in risk communication that demonstrates trust plays a prominent role in shaping public responses to risk. Notably, a couple of studies (see here and here) indicate people who are more trusting of the NWS are more likely to take protective action in response to tornado warnings than people who are less trusting of the NWS.
Public trust in weather services has grown from cost-efficient and lifesaving responses enabled by improvement in forecasts and a dedicated effort by NOAA to work effectively with decision-makers. In turn, improved forecast skill is a direct result of continued government investment in research, observing systems and computing. Both political parties have recognized that these investments and resulting services are essential to saving lives and protecting property.
While some issues confronting the weather enterprise provoke spirited debate, there is a tradition of mutual support. For example, when I was at the NOAA, I saw the private sector work hard to ensure Congress understood the devastating consequences if we were to suffer a gap in satellite coverage. The enterprise worked together to ensure that didn’t happen.
This cooperation is perhaps most clearly demonstrated during critical severe weather situations such as Hurricane Dorian. At these times, all players unite behind the NWS to ensure the public receives an unambiguous message regarding threats and needed actions. From my experience at the Weather Co., an IBM business, I know how hard the private sector, including broadcasters, works to ensure the NWS warnings are understood. The official warning is delivered by commercial weather apps, radio and TV broadcasts — and many other media. This is done because it is the right thing to do — it is what is needed to save lives.
By bringing politics into the forecasting and warning process, the Trump administration is directly working to erode the American public’s trust. That lack of trust will result in poor decisions and lives lost. The administration should commit to supporting NOAA staff and stay out of forecast operations — where NWS meteorologists are, and should be treated as, the experts.
Mary Glackin is the president-elect of the American Meteorological Society. She previously was vice president of weather business solutions at the Weather Co. and worked for 34 years at the NOAA, including serving as deputy undersecretary.