By Jason Samenow
9 October 2013
(Washington Post) – Large parts of the Federal government are shut, but the National Weather Service – in the spirit of protecting life and property – continues to work.
In one sterling example of dedication and tenacity, forecasters at the NWS office in Rapid City, South Dakota hiked to work and/or slept there overnight to ensure uninterrupted operations during a historic, paralyzing blizzard.
But – from a lack of janitorial services to canceled travel to broken data streams – the shutdown has unleashed a torrent of obstacles, making it more difficult for forecasters to effectively do their jobs.
The National Weather Service Employees Organization, a labor union, asked its members how the shutdown was disrupting their work and it received scores of responses.
Here’s a summary of some of the major issues raised, drawn from the union’s survey:
- Weather research to support forecasting operations has stopped, as most researchers are furloughed.
- Travel to major meetings, where forecasting methods and research are presented and discussed, has been canceled or will be canceled (unless government re-opens)
- Public outreach efforts have been canceled, such as training weather observers (spotters), school visits and office tours.
- Vacant positions at understaffed offices are not being filled.
- Preventative maintenance on weather radar and instruments (such as Automated Surface Observation Systems, used at many airports) has stopped in many cases.
- Janitorial services have stopped at some offices. In one case, forecasters were mopping bathroom floors.
- Online forecaster training modules are inaccessible in some cases. A mandatory onsite training was canceled at at least one office.
- River gauges – for monitoring flooding – have broken and cannot be serviced.
- Some data (model output statistics) from the European computer model – highly regarded for its accuracy – are unavailable, as the computer server resides at a furloughed office.
- Some data for forecasting wildfires are unavailable.
- Historic climate data from National Climatic Data Center, which is shut, are unavailable.
- No monthly pest control and regularly scheduled garbage pickup occurred at at least one office.
- Upgrades to more modern computer and software systems have been put on hold at some offices.
- Activities to support the NWS cooperative observer program – through which it receives weather observations from more than 11,000 volunteers – have been suspended. It is impossible to maintain/repair equipment.
- Storm damage surveys have been disallowed unless an exception is granted.
Marshall Shepherd, president of the American Meteorological Society, discusses the broader repercussions of these kinds of disruptions in his blog post: Implications of the “Shutdown” on the Weather Community and Beyond.
By J. Marsh
7 October 2013
(weatherandtheshutdown.blogspot.com) – As a leader in the weather and climate enterprise, I felt compelled to offer some real perspective on how U.S. citizens and colleagues are being affected by the Government Shutdown. I have argued in numerous blogs, interviews, and congressional briefings that our Federal weather and climate infrastructure should be valued as critical national assets similar to our homeland security and military resources. Superstorm Sandy, Moore/El Reno tornadoes, Colorado Floods, and numerous weather events affect American lives, families, and property.
Let me clearly emphasize that our National Weather Service colleagues are on the job (thank you), but there are several "catches" as they have some limitations and are working on the "promise of pay" (more on this later in the text). As we approach the 1-year anniversary of Sandy, I am amazed at how soon we forget valuable lessons.
Lesson 1-At the end of Sandy, there was an outcry in some circles about the quality of U.S. weather models relative to our European counterparts. While this was somewhat overplayed, ironically, we now have good momentum towards ensuring that U.S. modeling capacity is the best in the world. Yet, many of our colleagues working on U.S. weather model improvements (e.g., GFS, WRF, and storm surge) are at home. If the shutdown persists, it would be hard not to wonder if some improvement is being delayed that could save a life in 2015.
Lesson 2-I have commented many times about possible delays or gaps in our national weather satellite program. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) even identified this problem as a high-risk challenge. If the shutdown persists, I would imagine that this adds to the potential for delays or a gap. Last week, I used NOAA and NASA satellite data to monitor Tropical Storm Karen, a record Blizzard, severe storms, and Santa Ana wind/wildfire-conducive conditions.
Lesson 3-I have collected many “shutdown stories” from colleagues within the field or my own observations. Herein, I provide some of the implications of these stories:
- A popular tool for severe weather and winter weather forecasting, Bufkit, used by many TV and operational meteorologists has not worked for some after re-installation. This is likely because it may be trying to query data from NOAA websites that are offline.
- Though many NWS forecast office internet sites are up, I find it amazing that the @NOAA Twitter feed and NOAA National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) website are down. I am sure that many non-weather experts, who may be unfamiliar with more specific sites that I am, consume valuable information from the @NOAA Twitter feed in hazardous situations. I know that many broadcasters, forecasters, writers, students, and researchers are literally unable to get work done because the NCDC website is down.
- On a related noted, I was unable to assign 2 assignments in my Satellite Meteorology class this week because it requires the NASA Giovanni website, currently down. I typically try to infuse real world, current topics in my instructional philosophy, and now my students at the University are suffering. Several colleagues have shared frustratingly similar stories. For example, one colleague writes, “I have been unable to teach MOS guidance to students as this data lies on a non-essential server. MOS guidance has a large impact on our students' understanding of statistics and probabilistic weather guidance.” Yet, we keep asking why U.S. students are lagging in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. These situations certainly do not help.
- Research is also being impacted because many valuable datasets from NASA, NOAA, and other agencies are not available. I personally have one project on hold because I cannot access a valuable dataset from NASA. One colleague also correctly notes that NSF and many scientific granting agencies are unable to process grants to universities. This means that students, which depend on the grants for their financial support, may be without funding.
- Colleagues in the Operational/NWS sector have also expressed concern about equipment maintenance. NWS weather instruments, Doppler radars, and computers do break (duh!), yet, it is my understanding that only emergency (rather than routine) maintenance is allowed.
- Many colleagues have expressed concerned about the inability to attend the upcoming National Weather Association (NWA) meeting in Charleston, South Carolina. Scientific meetings are critical for the exchange of new knowledge, best practices, and collaborations. As President of the American Meteorological Society (AMS), many of our planning meetings for the 2014 AMS Annual Meeting (February) have been delayed or postponed because so many of the valuable leadership come from our federal partners.
- Much of NOAA and NWS outreach related activities have been halted during the shutdown. This is very shortsighted. Efforts like Weather-Ready Nation have the potential to save U.S. citizens’ lives. With recent weather hazards like Sandy or the Moore/El Reno tornadoes, many of the challenges related to protecting life and property were not related to poor forecasting. In fact, the forecasts, science, and technology did quite well. The challenges that I saw were related to communications, perceptions of the hazard, and other human dimension issues. This is where outreach (school visits, websites, displays in the community, StormReady programs, etc.) is valuable to the public. [more]