Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Do We Need the National Weather Service When There is a Weather Channel?

Several years ago during a budget hearing, a Congressman supposedly asked why we needed the National Weather Service when lots of forecasts are available on the Weather Channel.  This guy was serious, but misinformed, since much of the material on the Weather Channel--the observations, the model output, the warnings---all came from the National Weather Service.  President Obama  knows--it seems that in nearly every speech when he talks about agencies we dare not cut the National Weather Service is mentioned.

At times I have criticized some National Weather Service policies or forecasts, but let me assure you, their forecasters are experienced and highly trained, and they make substantial sacrifices for all of us (like accepting rotating shifts).   Often TV weathercasters talk about "my forecast" or the "KXXX custom doppler-radar forecast" or whatever, but let me tell you a secret--they look at and rarely deviate far from NWS predictions.  Twice I had my 101 classes write down the TV forecasts for an extended period and then we compared them to the NWS predictions--no statistically significant difference.  (In fact, one of the leading local TV weathercasters called the chair of my department complaining about such activities!  This is why tenure is good.)

What do you have to do to become a NWS meteorologist?  You need a real degree in meteorology (at least a B.S.)--which means you had a lot of math, physics, and atmospheric sciences.   Getting into the NWS is quite difficult and they only have a few positions a year open--so those that get in are strong candidates.  The NWS then has an extended and comprehensive training program and intern forecasters have to spend several years working their way up until they become journeyman staff.

Here in Seattle the local office is at the NOAA Sand Point facility, and they have a nice office with a wonderful view of Lake Washington.   The "Meteorologist in Charge"--the head weather honcho-- is Brad Colman, who has exceptional academic credentials (Ph.D. from one of the top programs, MIT), and deep operational experience. 
Brad Colman, Seattle NWS Head Guy.  He likes blue shirts.
He is so highly thought of by NWS management that he was asked to help write the NWS vision document for 2020.   The local office also has a Warning Coordination Meteorologist (Ted Buehner), who deals with local agencies and the media, particularly during major weather, and a Science and Operations
Ted Buehner working on an AWIPS Workstation
Officer (Kirby Cook), who works on software development and training.   Under them there are roughly 15 forecasters and interns.  And there is more--there is a Service Hydrologist, working on floods and heavy precipitation, and the NW Avalanche Center, which provides mountain forecasts for the region.  Plus meteorological technicians that keep everything working and administrative support staff.

NWS Forecaster Working.  Looks like a good storm!
The way they make and communicate their forecasts has changed radically during the past decade.  In the old days, a forecaster would type out the forecast, after looking a a variety of computer-based weather forecasts, satellite and radar imagery, and a wide range of other observations.  Not anymore.  Now they play around with graphical renditions of the weather--drawing the fields on a screen and then the forecast text is created by a computer. You thought video games are fun.  Making forecasts on their graphically oriented system--AWIPS--is better.
This is the Graphical Forecast Editor (GFE) used by NWS forecasters to create forecasts. Not for color-blind folks.
There are over a hundred similar offices around the U.S., each one associated with a Doppler radar.  Our office will have more than one soon when our new radar is online. With so many offices, forecasters can become masters of their local weather--which is very important.  How often do you hear the Weather Channel folks talk about the convergence zone, the Enumclaw winds, or the Sequim rainshadow?  And it is well known that the Weather Channel ignores the West Coast.  They will even admit it.

Behind each office there is a huge and expensive infrastructure--the observation systems, the computer forecasts on large supercomputers, the satellite and radar networks, and much more.  It is amazing it all works so seamlessly.   And there is more.  There are major NWS centers for specific forecasting issues:  a Storm Prediction Center for severe convection, a Aviation Weather Center for aviation meteorology, a Marine Prediction Center for the seas, etc.  All the numerical weather forecasts are made by the Environmental Prediction Center in Maryland (I was there last week).  They are located in an old and decrepit building worthy of a wrecking ball (no I wouldn't waste a good wrecking ball on it)--but next year they are moving to a state-of-the-art facility near the University of Maryland.

There is a lot of carping about supporting the Federal government these days, but some agencies, like the National Weather Service, are worth every penny and provide a huge benefit to the nation.

28 comments:

AM said...

Every day our elected officials just scare me to death. Why do we need the NWS when we can just watch local news? One can not make this stuff up.

deballou said...

A few years ago Brad Colman gave a talk about El Nino and La Nina to our Master Gardener clinic (of which Brad is a member) and it was very helpful in helping me understand Northwest weather patterns. He is a great teacher and his talk prompted me to learn more about weather in general. We NEED the National Weather Service for far more than finding out if we need to pack Gortex on our weekend outing---I have an app for that!

John McBride said...

No carping from this source, Cliff. I've been checking their forecasts for years, and rely on their weather discussions exclusively. I endure the local broadcast weather as an artifact of news programming, but even NHK, a Japan produced news program that runs on KCTS every morning, gives me more detailed information in a shorter period of time about weather here and around the world, than do the local stations.

Nah, I'll grouse plenty should Congress start eyeing our weather people. They're invaluable. Those "other guys and gals" aren't.

julie said...

Thanks for putting real faces and names to people who are the brains and hard workers behind the scenes. With pilots in the family, truck driver and commercial fisherman friends, we can tell you that accurate weather is crucial for work and life and not just recreation. Appreciate your blog and the NWS guys. Just curious.....are there any NWS gals?

Alex said...

I don't want a NWS. Smacks of more socialism.

suzie said...

I find it odd that you already established in the first paragraph that the government recognizes that the national weather service is critical and won't face budget cuts then you spend the rest of the blog posting beating a dead horse.

Terry said...

Excellent post, Cliff, but I would add another crucial reason we need the NWS. Local weather personalities and The Weather Channel are in the entertainment business. They care most about ratings, so they dramatize the weather as much as they can. Sure, they try to be accurate, but only so they can compare their track record with their competitors. We need the NWS simply so we can get the facts and not hyped or sugarcoated forecasts.

Lance said...

Haha, so true. The weather channel does have a huge bias to the Midwest, South and Northeast. I know they're based in Atlanta but it also because our weather here out on the west coast is boring in comparison to hurricanes, tornadoes, and severe thunderstorms!

Donna & Chris said...

Cliff,

Thanks for giving a shout out to the NWS. My hubby works for NOAA-- not in the weather service, but he collaborates with these folk -- and whenever he is wearing NOAA accessories (there is a reason!) lots of folks (general public) are appreciative and thankful for the weather service. Hubby is quick to say thanks and give credit where credit is due.

I want to add that may of the NOAA scientists have PhDs and do not make excessive salaries given their education and work they do. My humble opinion!

Fetlock said...

Suzie--if simple statement of opinion without backing facts is enough for you, then why read any column or article all the way through? Last time I checked, that's the way most people develop an argument.

Also, Mr. Obama is not 'the government'...he is just the president.

In an era when popular and traditionally "hands-off" programs like Social Security and Medicare are on the chopping block, you'd better believe that the NWS is nervous--just like everyone else who works for the federal government.

Donna & Chris said...

To Suzie:


Cliff stated that Pres. Obama is clear about the importance of the NWS -- but he doesn't set the budget on his own.

I'm afraid the average tea-party congressperson is quite convinced that there isn't a single government program that isn't useless, incompentent, or at least has a substantial amount of "waste" it its budget. (oh, except the military, and programs in their home district, and...)

So there is much need to beat the horse of worthwhile federal programs.

(I don't know about the NWS, but the NOAA budget has a whole got a MAJOR hit in the latest house budget)

Lindsey said...

Thanks just for pointing out the important distinction between the NWS and The Weather Channel. I'm afraid that alleged congressperson probably isn't alone in not understanding the important difference between TWC and the NWS. I fear that for many, TWC effectively IS the NWS!

SteveM said...

Thanks for the great post on the NWS. I particularly appreciate the enhanced forecast discussions they offer on their website. These have become much more interesting to me since I've been reading your blog (and your book).

Lance said...

The Weather Channel and every other weather forecast on TV would be in SHAMBLES if the NWS was dissolved.

Doug said...

When Grover Norquist and the "Americans for Tax Reform" (aka Americans Who Want Free Lunch) rant about "drowning government in a bathtub," they're talking about letting ideologues who think television hairdos create weather forecasts use a blunt instrument to smash the intricate machinery of our civil society. These people will cherrypick examples of waste-- the kind found in any larger organization-- to arouse "populist" ire, but when the cuts come the merit and efficiency of targeted programs won't be part of the hammer blows raining willy-nilly on the mechanisms we've spent 200 years perfecting.

Think hard before joining the fad for low, low taxes.

Mark said...

Cliff - I think you would agree that the federal government has no legitimate role in education as evidenced by the state of our education system and the federal takeover via CCSS. Would you support shutting down the Department of Education and redirecting some portion of their $60B annual budget to NWS?

Alex said...

I always question those who demand taxpayers dollars. Practically hysterical for them. Anyone who dares scrutinize is labeled an anarchist.

girlinseattle said...

I always love to see people supporting NWS -- I grew up in Kansas, where predicting severe weather is a serious business, and have always had a deep and abiding respect for NWS and the work that they do.

gericw said...

unfortunately we are dealing with a level of ignorance that is based on the proposition that if one believes something it must be true

slyvester said...

The NWS is a "sacred cow" in my mind. Weather trumps everything and too many critical elements of our society are dependent on accurate and timely forecasts.

Another excellent entry Cliff.

Polistra said...

Yup, NWS is always there. Local radio and TV skip the weather when football or Oprah take precedence.


I enjoy reading their 'forecast discussion' texts. Sometimes you can see them tearing out their hair trying to reconcile conflicting models, and sometimes they're clearly trying to calm down the local weathercasters, as in "DONT FREAK OUT PEOPLE, THIS ISNT ANOTHER ICESTORM."

showhank said...

Cliff, It would be interesting to compare and contrast the Canadian system with the US system, and understand how much money they spend per forecast. I know that their forecasts are much less detailed and that there are not any publicly available forecast discussions.

Zathras said...

Thanks for the kind words Cliff! Working shifts far and away is the most difficult part of working for the NWS--it makes you appreciate all the other workers who are up at night. But I'd rather be looking at the MM5 than baking bread, pulling over drunks, or driving an ambulance.

JeffB said...

I think it is the other way around. We need a wether service for aviation and maritime but we should ditch the weather channel. The last few days are a great example. Every local weather talking head had forecast solid sun for 10 days or more. Instead we had clouds yesterday, the 5th and most of today, the 6th. Bottom line is that none of these guys have any ability to predict beyond a few hours. I wish they would all stop pretending like they do so as not to either get our hopes up or scare us with all of the predictions that never materialize.

kdscatt said...

As a former NWS employee at Sandpoint in the (1980-85), I concur with your post - well done !!

John Monteverdi said...

As soon as, either, (a) your boss is not in the position to judge your expertise (meaning, a non-meteorologist, in this case); and/or (b) your boss is somewhat/a little/a lot concerned about the profit motive, then you can ensure that there will be quality control issues, underpaid staff issues, and expertise issues.

Excellent comment, Cliff.

And when the NY Times is reporting that Irene was overhyped, if you read between the lines, it was overhyping by reporters, TV and media people and certainly NOT by the NWS. Yet the NWS is consistently stung by the misimpression in the public that all "meteorologists" are in the same pot. You will note that the NWS does NOT use a lot of adjectives in their weather forecasts...some, but not many. "worst ever", "catastrophic", "storm of the century", "cataclysmic"...these are words used by the media, and not the NWS.

badmomgoodmom said...

Here the go again.
http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2011/08/27/do-really-need-national-weather-service/

Zathras said...

Precision vs. accuracy! A great deal of effort is being made all over the place to be more precise, but forecaster skill ought to be the whole ball of wax. For that matter, the model simulations ought to have error bars associated with every forecast. It is wonderful to see gales in a mesoscale model (or snowfall, or high temperature) but it is quite another thing to know dprog/dt and the probcast-like odds. Tracking these things is a lot of work...especially if you have to spend too much time being precise (but not right).