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Gov't shutdown could impact upcoming hurricane season

Dr. Mario Picazo
Meteorologist, PhD

Friday, January 11, 2019, 2:47 PM - If you try to access the usual U.S. government weather websites these days, you will be prompted with a message basically saying that due to the government shutdown most of the information you would normally find is not available. This is just a small part of the nightmare many professionals in the sector are living since December 22nd when the shutdown officially started.

The National Weather Service (NWS) is now running on fumes, but fortunately, much of the weather forecasting operations of NOAA, a parent agency of the NWS, are exempted from the shutdown and are helping get the work done. Forecasters, engineers and other staff locally and nationally, are still providing forecasts and warnings which are essential to safeguard lives and property, although many are doing their work with no economic compensation what so ever. 

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Image courtesy of NOAA.

While the day-to-day weather forecasting is covered by what some consider the most devoted employees in the sector, other scientists and engineers have been sent home and have halted all of their research activities. This includes a large group of professionals at NOAA and the NWS who during the hurricane off season months of the year, normally work to improve computer models and train other professionals in the field. These are essential tasks to improve long term weather predictions and they are normally performed between December and May when tropical weather is not as active as during the Summer and Fall months.

Hurricane Irma. Image courtesy of NOAA.

The effects of the government shutdown are also being felt across the broader American meteorological community. The American Meteorological Society (AMS) annual meeting being held in Phoenix, Arizona these days has seen less attendance than expected since 25 to 30 percent of attendees are federal employees. Their absence will definitely have a noticeable effect on this year's progress in the field of operational meteorology. 

Much of the research and development the National Hurricane Center (NHC) relies on to improve computer models like the American GFS is now in jeopardy due to the shutdown. According to NHC hurricane scientist Eric Blake, in mid-January the NHC starts to host hurricane preparedness training, weeks of preparation for emergency managers and decision makers from across the southern and eastern U.S. The Shutdown means the classes will be cancelled, and that is definitely not good for hurricane readiness.

Blake also points out that "workforce management is also shutdown, so there won’t be any hires. This means many current openings will be delayed, and the new ones to come open will be pushed back as well. Not great for a workforce that is nowhere near fully staffed".

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Gulfstream IV-SP jet. Image courtesy of NOAA/Wikipedia Creative Commons.

The Environmental Modelling Center (EMC) is one of NOAA's agencies devoted to developing and improving numerical models used for weather and climate predictions. Typically at this time in the year, they would working full on with scientists like Blake, adjusting and fine tuning existing models based on the experiences learned from the past hurricane season. Of the 200 people that would normally be doing this work for the EMC, only one is working during this shutdown, the other 199 have been banned from all activity until it all ends. 

Experts at EMC are openly stating the importance of each day missed; "as days go by and less work is accomplished, the potential for model improvement towards better forecasting the upcoming hurricane season drops."

ECM also oversees the upgrading of other numerical models used for global forecasting, like the Global Forecast System model (GFS), also known among weather professionals as the GFS or American Model. GFS is waiting for some groundbreaking improvements that now, according to experts at the center, will have to wait well past the originally planned dates. 

With tornado season coming up in about three months, and hurricane season shortly after, the concern among NWS and NOAA scientists grows knowing that the tools they heavily rely on for their top of the line forecasts will not be fine-tuned when the action begins.


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