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A stabilizing force: Outgoing Weather Service director reflects on tenure

Louis Uccellini, a 32-year veteran of the National Weather Service, steered the agency through budget, workforce, technology and political challenges

Louis Uccellini. (National Weather Service)
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When Louis Uccellini took the helm as director of the National Weather Service in 2013, the agency was navigating turbulent times.

It was short-staffed, could hardly pay its forecasters and had recently been embroiled in a budget scandal involving several high-ranking officials who moved money around without congressional approval. Its infrastructure for disseminating forecasts and warnings was falling apart. And it was just starting partnerships with emergency managers and public safety officials, who were in desperate need of reliable and trustworthy weather information.

In his nearly nine years as director, Uccellini steadied the ship, reorganizing the agency’s budget structure and developing more reliable systems for pushing out lifesaving information. He oversaw a massive effort to strengthen and expand communication channels between the agency and the outside world through its Impact-based Decision Support Services initiative.

He also spearheaded upgrades to the computer systems underpinning the agency’s forecast models, which have shown gains in accuracy.

The sailing wasn’t always smooth. By Uccellini’s own admission, his stiffest challenge came when President Donald Trump inaccurately tweeted that Hurricane Dorian was a threat to Alabama, contradicting NWS forecasters — a scandal that became known as Sharpiegate. But Uccellini stood by his forecasters and was applauded for his courage.

The 32-year Weather Service veteran not only helped put the agency on solid footing when it might falter, but did so as the nation experienced unprecedented weather extremes intensified by a warming climate.

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Upon Uccellini’s retirement announcement in September, colleagues lauded him for his determination, dedication and leadership.

We recently emailed Uccellini questions so he could reflect on his tenure, which ends Jan. 1. His answers, edited for length and clarity, are provided below.

What do you consider your biggest accomplishment directing the National Weather Service?

I thoroughly enjoyed my job and worked hard no matter what the challenges were. I consider these my two biggest accomplishments:

1) Establishing a trusted relationship with the emergency management and public safety officials at every government level that has connected our forecasts and warnings to key decisions made to ensure communities are ready for and respond to oncoming extreme events throughout the country. This effort, through the provision of Impact-based Decision Support Services (IDSS), has been a key accomplishment throughout the NWS that actually allows us to realize our mission statement of protecting lives and property.

2) The total restructuring of the NWS budget structure. With this restructuring, we demonstrated a clear commitment to project and budget planning, management and mission execution to meet the field needs to better operate today, and build toward a Weather-Ready Nation, making sure every community is ready for and responds to extreme weather, water and climate events.

We have had no financial mismanagement, with a solid planning process completed within the budget appropriated by Congress and nearly all on the original schedule.

You told the Associated Press that Sharpiegate was the biggest leadership challenge you ever faced. What made it such a challenge, and are you proud of how you and the agency weathered that crisis?

The matter is the biggest leadership challenge I ever faced, as the scientific integrity of the forecast and IDSS process were being undermined at the highest level of our government even as a dangerous Category 5 Hurricane Dorian lurked off the southeast coast of the United States. Then, the NWS Birmingham office was unfairly singled out by political leadership when the meteorologist-in-charge and his staff were being disparaged and personally threatened through phone calls and social media posts. And all of this was happening while they were providing the information to keep the people in their community safe.

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As the NWS director, I wanted the Birmingham office (and actually the entire country) to know that I, and the rest of the NWS leadership team, had their backs; that we knew they were applying sound scientific principles and doing their jobs with distinction, along with everyone else in the NWS, as we successfully dealt with the forecast uncertainties associated with Hurricane Dorian. Looking back, I would not have done anything differently.

It seems like NWS has made a lot of progress in terms of helping its customers make better weather-related decisions. Can you highlight how the NWS has helped build more a “Weather-Ready Nation” during your tenure?

An aspect of the success of the Weather-Ready Nation effort, which has been emphasized by our emergency management partners, is that we continually work with these decision-makers at every government level to ensure we understand their decision process and key decision points, and that we also work to assess past performance to be better the next time around.

Utilizing the lessons-learned approach from one extreme event to planning for the next is a key part of advancing capabilities to make better weather- and water-related decisions. The net impact of this partnership is perhaps best summarized by Eric Waage, director of emergency management (EM) for Hennepin County, Minn., who stated in 2016: “Partnership with the NWS has revolutionized this EM community from one that reacts to events to one that proactively prepares and stays ahead of the extreme events.”

How do you think climate change has changed weather forecasting and how NWS operates during your tenure?

Climate change is having a profound effect on our weather patterns, with extreme heat, flooding rains, enhanced hurricane seasons and the more extreme hotter and faster-moving fires; all of this complicates the forecasts and preparation for these extremes, which in many cases have never been seen before.

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Recent examples include the forecasting and provision of decision support services up to a week in advance for the heat wave in the Pacific Northwest, the magnitude of which has never been observed in that part of the country. Similar challenges were associated with the record hourly rainfall rates contributing to extremely dangerous flash floods in New York City and near Nashville, the magnitude of which had also not been observed before.

The latest accuracy scores for global computer models still show the American model (GFS) trailing the two best European models (ECMWF and UKMet Office), which has been the case for many years. What needs to happen in the coming years for the United States to overtake the Europeans and have the world’s best global modeling system?

We are making improvements with the GFS, and they are reflected in our improving skill scores during the past year and model performance during extreme events. Yes, we are still lagging in the scores of the single “deterministic” run of the GFS as compared with the ECMWF and UKMet models. But the GFS is doing remarkably well for hurricane track and intensity forecasts over the past several years and as well as mid-latitude storms, especially along the coasts. We have also improved the ensemble-based modeling systems that are being used for extended range forecasts by the public and private forecast community with increasing confidence.

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We still have much more to do to address known deficiencies in how data is brought into our models. This effort is ongoing but cannot be implemented until we finish installing our next-generation computer system by July 2022, a system that will allow us to run fully coupled, high-resolution Earth system models (accounting for the physical processes in the atmosphere, ocean, land and cryosphere) in the near future.

National Weather Service websites and its tools for dissemination still aren’t as reliable as many would like them to be. Talk about the progress you’ve made and what improvements are still necessary.

I agree with your lead into this question. Keep in mind that before I arrived, we had six separate dissemination systems, one managed by each NWS region, that were so undercapacity that we could not move high-resolution satellite data nor model output from central processing locations to forecast offices. Furthermore, the bandwidth into the local forecast offices was so low that people had to do their remote training at home! Lastly, no one could tell me when I arrived as to how much money we were spending, what our requirements were and what the plan would be to address the essential dissemination requirements not only for the NWS but also for the entire public-private weather enterprise.

So even as I recognized that we would have to build a robust dissemination system, we knew that we would have to start from the very beginning with quality and transparent project management and with a sense of urgency. We could not (and did not) realize how big of an effort this would be and how long it would take.

After nearly nine years, we have:

  1. Built a single network that connects two data centers and moves big data sets from our models and satellites to our forecast offices and to the larger enterprise with 99.9 percent on time reliability.
  2. Increased bandwidth to all forecast offices supported by the NWS and to partners.
  3. Created an “Integrated Dissemination Program” (IDP) that is designed to include all of our legacy applications.
  4. Instituted real-time 24x7 system monitoring.
  5. Advanced other important dissemination systems such as NOAA Weather Radio, weather emergency alerts, satellite-based dissemination systems and increasingly diverse social media connectivity.

The problems we have encountered during this complicated effort to build an extensive and reliable operational system with 99.9 percent reliability was compounded by several factors, including:

  1. Several of more than 50 legacy applications could not be transferred to the new IDP platform, which meant that the code would have to be totally rewritten.
  2. We underestimated the increasing demands associated with IDSS, new satellite data and our improved models, and …
  3. The length of time it took to secure new resources, which we finally are seeing in the president’s fiscal 2022 budget being considered on the Hill.

Is there anything you wish you could have gotten done during your tenure but ran out of time?

I guess there are always things that one can point to in terms of doing something different to accelerate the changes in the NWS. But after 32 years in the NWS, I have made peace with the fact that it will always take longer than we initially assume to change a 24x7 agency that 1) touches every person in this country every day; and 2) involves partnerships and relationships with so many organizations and decision-makers inside and outside of the weather, water and climate enterprise.

What do you see as the biggest challenges facing the agency looking ahead?

Opportunities to advance the analysis, prediction and service components abound as many users are realizing the importance of the data and forecasts being provided across the entire Earth system need to be a part of their tool set, especially to prepare for and respond to extreme weather water and climate events, and the related increasing vulnerability of communities related to these events.

We are looking forward to the full applications of artificial intelligence and machine learning that can better extract the useful information from observation and prediction systems for users to make better decisions.

Lastly, we as physical scientists have to work better with social scientists so we have a better understanding of human factors and related risk preferences that affect all decision processes in the face of the uncertainties noted above. And all of these challenges will be magnified as the prediction paradigm is extended into the other fields, like the medical field and water quality and other applications as they adopt a prediction capacity.

Think about the Weather Service in 20 years: How do you think it will be different from today in terms of how it operates and fulfills its mission?

The Weather Service 20 years out will still be a go-to agency for its mission of protecting lives and property, ensuring communities are ready for and responding to upcoming extreme weather water events fueled by a warmer climate. Forecasts will be more accurate, with increased certainty with longer lead times provided by high-resolution global modeling systems based on a fully coupled Earth system science approach.

Probably the most important change will be that the prediction experience embraced by the weather community for over 170 years ago will carry over into other science fields, such as the water- and air-quality communities and even the medical community, which are in various stages of spinning up prediction capabilities for harmful algae blooms, beach quality, smoke and other particulate matter and disease vectors.

Do you have any advice for your successor or anything else to add?

I will save my advice for my successor in private, if and only if I am asked. Whoever comes into this position will find that his/her biggest asset are the people who work in the NWS, who, in review after review, have been found to be the most dedicated to mission and committed to public service anywhere in government or the private sector.

BONUS QUESTION: You are the author of books considered by weather enthusiasts as the bibles for East Coast snowstorms. To the nearest tenth of an inch, how much snow will fall at Reagan National Airport this winter?

24.3 inches. We are due.

Progress in predictions: With over 40 years of snow forecasting, Uccellini wrote the book on East Coast storms