Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Future of National Weather Service Forecast Offices

Twenty four hours a day, every day of the year, National Weather Service forecasters are watching the weather. 

They make regularly scheduled predictions.
They watch for and predict extreme weather.
At the coastal offices, there predict ocean (or Great Lake) water levels and waves. Or provide tsunami warnings after major earthquakes.
They predict streamflow and water levels of major rivers, and provide guidance for flooding situations
They forecast the dispersion of smoke from wildfires and help predict the behavior of major fires.
They determine how airports operate and who can fly.
The put out warnings when air quality deteriorates.
And much more.

In a real sense, they are the nation's environmental guardians and are a major jewel of the National Weather Service.

But local offices are in trouble:  underfunded, undermanned, and underappreciated.  And there are major questions regarding the role of local human forecasters in the future.  This blog will examine some of these issues.

First, some background.  There are roughly 120 forecast offices around the U.S. (see map).  They are staffed by professional meteorologists, hydrologists, meteorological technicians, and some administrative staff. Virtually all are associated with a Doppler weather radar.  And they are backed up and added by specialist colleagues at the Storm Prediction Center (SPC), the National Hurricane Center (NHC), the Aviation Weather Center (AWC) and river forecast offices (like the one in Portland).


National Weather Service meteorologists are highly trained.  All have at least a B.S. in meteorology, with many possessing additional graduate degrees.  In addition, the NWS has an extensive training program for all forecasters, including some wonderful computer-based modules created by the UCAR COMET program.  Newly hired forecasters go through a several year internship/journeyman program before moving into lead forecast positions. 


Sitting at multi-screen consoles, forecasters have sophisticated display tools for examining model output and observations, and can make their forecasts by creating graphical renditions of the expected weather.

But years of budget cuts are now having a severe toll on these public servants.  With lack of funding, many NWS offices are not filling positions, with some offices down 2-3 forecasters (a few even more).  Forecasters used to have research or supernumerary shifts that allowed them to improve their knowledge base, but with a lack of staff such opportunities have become far less frequent.   Funding for going to conferences has been essentially eliminated, so that NWS forecasters can no longer go to relevant national conferences (like the American Meteorological Society Weather and Forecasting Conference).  At our last year's NW Weather Workshop only the Seattle office forecasters could come...in previous years we would have several NWS attendees from Oregon, Idaho, and Alaska.   With a lack of time of additional education and an inability to attend important meetings, forecasters lose their technical edge.  And we all suffer as a result. Last year the situation got so bad, that the head of the NWS had to use creative finances to just pay salaries...and he was given the boot for doing so.

And now with the exceedingly dumb government sequester, NWS forecasters face several days of furlough, further exacerbating the situation. 

It is an embarrassment for the nation that we cannot support our nation's forecasters in a reasonable way, with cuts undermining their ability to remain current or to improve their knowledge.  And lack of personnel results in overworked forecasters, which clearly can degrade the quality of their work.  NOAA needs to give support of our  local offices more priority.


As the quality of the numerical models have improved, some NOAA bureaucrats have been hinting about a reorganization of the NWS office structure, saving money by closing offices and creating larger superoffices serving much larger areas.

My take on this:  a big mistake.

A key advantage of the current structure is that the area of responsibility of each office is relatively small, thus allowing forecasters to develop an intimate knowledge of the local peculiarities of the weather of their region.  This is critically important knowledge.  Just as important, forecasters get to know the users of weather information in their area and can develop personal relationships with key individuals in local governments, departments of transportation, and large local businesses.  Such relationships would be difficult for the staff of a distant superoffice.

As numerical weather prediction improves, NWS forecasters will need spend less time on the production of the forecasts for the next few days, but there is still plenty to do.  First, there is helping local agencies, groups, and individuals understand and use weather forecasts.  The new motto of the NWS is "Weather Ready Nation."   That implies far more than simply making a weather forecast...it means helping users of weather information to optimally apply the forecasts. That takes a long-term relationship and lots of education regarding the strengths and weaknesses of forecasting products.

NWS forecasters need to spend more time on the achilles heal of weather prediction...the very short term period (0-3 hr).  To do so they need to put more effort in nowcasting, describing what is happening now and in the next few hours.

And NWS staff require sufficient time to enhance local weather observations and to identify and fix incorrect sensors.  This is particularly time consuming in this era of huge number of surface weather networks.

The students graduating programs such a mine at the UW will be filling the NWS forecaster ranks during the next few decades.  Their future, and that of the NWS is bright, IF NOAA management will insure proper support of the field offices.  For the last few years, lack of investment has undermined and hollowed out these crucial guardians of our safety and economic health.   This needs to change.

One place to find some resources is to reform (and probably eliminate) the NWS's current inefficient and expensive region structure.   The U.S. is divided into regions (e.g., the Western Region, Northeast Region, etc), each with an pricy bureaucracy headed by a high-cost administrator.  Perhaps this made sense 50 years ago, but no longer.   Forecasters are constantly complaining about the lack of value of the regional bureaucracy.

I am encouraged that some of our elected representatives, like Senator Maria Cantwell and the House Science Committee, having taken notice of the abysmal current situation.  I hope their influence can address the poor decisions of NOAA management.

Announcement

My department is offering an introductory weather class during the summer quarter. The classes are held Tuesday through Thursday mornings during the 9-week session from June 24th through August 23rd. The course focuses on developing a basic understanding of the physical processes responsible for weather and related atmospheric phenomena. The web-site for the course is located at: http://www.atmos.washington.edu/academics/classes/2013Q3/101/ 

8 comments:

Rob W. said...

Cliff - on the map, what is the difference between the pink-dotted sites and the white-dotted sites? I assume it has something to do with marine forecasting, but it's not immediately clear.

James Duke said...

Forecasters do not determine when airports open/close. Even the FAA, under ordinary circumstances doesn't do that. Airports open/close based mostly on local airport management decisions.

Take-off/landing decisions are made by the pilot, generally following FAA guidelines and restrictions.

darly said...

Dr Mass. Could you please document "years of budget cuts" comment? I see this referenced on the internets and what I come up with is:

2005 824.8mil
2006 804.3mil
2007 838.3mil
2008 911.4mil
2009 958.9mil
2010 999.8mil
2011 990.4mil
2012 991.9mil

Tony Cristaldi said...

Rob, you are correct in that the "red dot "offices have some area of marine forecast responsibility, for either the Atlantic coastal waters or the Great Lakes.

Unknown said...

James Duke, you're technically right. However, NWS forecasts are used by air traffic control to determine runway configurations and capacity. How the FAA guidelines and restrictions (go/no-go for takeoff and landing, additional fuel requirements) apply is determined by the observed and forecast weather conditions.

Cliff Mass said...

Darly,
You got to separate out the support for the offices from the rest of the NWS budget....cliff

Ferdi said...

For years I was critical of the NWS's practice of rotating forecasters to different offices around the country, for the very reason you cite - the need to become familiar with local weather peculiarities. Failure by outside forecasters to understand the Puget Sound convergence zone or the fickle nature of onshore flow in the northwest summers used to lead to some abysmally poor forecasts. This was brought home year after year by the fact that the late Professor Reed, who was intimately familiar with local weather, regularly won the UW Atmospheric Sciences Dept. forecasting contest, beating NWS by a mile.

Jinxy said...

A big shame in some of the talent-scouting by NOAA/NWS is the insistence on a Bachelor's degree or higher specifically in Meteorology or Atmospheric Science. The ladies & gentlemen of our U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force weather communities often have years of hands-on experience forecasting for hourly, daily and weekly customer needs; this is in addition to skills in taking weather observations, operating NEXRAD or RAOB machinery for upper-air conditions, and having a firm understanding of their localized environment.

Many of us are able to do the day-to-day tasks just as well, but face an institutional discrimination in hiring practices because we do not wish to pursue a degree in a field of science that we have already demonstrated core competencies in.

-Petty Officer Tom Jenkins, USNR
(Junior, Environmental Studies, UW)