March 13, 2017

How Would the Trump Administration's Proposed Cuts Affect the Big Snowstorm Forecast?

Tomorrow, a very strong Nor'Easter will hit the Northeast U.S., with blizzard conditions bringing ground and air travel to a standstill, closing schools and businesses.  The 12-h forecast for 5 AM PDT Tuesday shows the story, with a strong low pressure center moving up the coast.

5 AM Tuesday 12-h Forecast for the U.S. GFS model 
(pressure-solid lines, and precipitation-colors)

Although most of the action is about to happen, we are close enough to note that the long-term forecasts of the U.S. global model, the GFS, were quite excellent, superior even to the vaunted European Center model, which generally has superior forecast skill.  Really good forecasts 5-6 days out.

Confidence in the forecast models has grown so much that airlines recommended passengers alter their plans on Friday and they cancelled most flights into the Northeast a day ahead of the storm (today).

A few decades ago, we could not offer such skill.  But today, enhanced U.S. weather satellites and improved numerical forecast models make all the difference.   And now, the Trump administration is talking about massive cutbacks in both of these critical elements.

Let's talk satellites.  The storm that is developing off the southeast U.S. as I write this note developed out of two main ingredients:  an upper level trough that moved in from the west, and a large low-level temperature gradient (difference) between cold air over the eastern U.S. and the warm Gulf Stream waters.

I have created a graphic showing the upper level flow field (500 hPa) and have indicated the position of the critical trough (where the height lines curve). Troughs cause upward motion and storm development.

At  11 PM tonight the trough is along the coast, resulting in the storm to rev up over the SE U.S. coastal zone.  But the same trough was approaching Seattle on Saturday (giving us rain in the lowlands!).   And 5 PM Thursday the trough was WAY over the Pacific, north of Hawaii. Yes...a weather disturbance north of Hawaii, will lead to snow over the NE U.S. a few days later.
Now to get this forecast right 5-6 days ago, we had to know about the trough over the Pacific and the only way to do that is with weather satellites.  Without the full constellation of geostationary and polar orbiting satellites this kind of forecast is not possible.

That is why the Trump administration's plan to cut 1/2 billion dollars from the U.S. government entity responsible for weather satellites (NESDIS) is very worrisome.  The loss of that much funding would undoubtedly terminate or delay new satellite launches, such as the critical polar orbiter satellite replacements planned for the new few years or the second, next-generation polar orbiting satellite.

Now, let me show you how the U.S. model "locked into" the storm.  Here is the short-term (12h) forecast again..which should be very close to reality. The low is due east of Delaware.

The 48h had the right idea as well

The 72 hr prediction--pretty much the same.

How about the 120 hour forecast?  A bit weaker, but a similar story.

144hr out, still a snow event, but more diffuse

This kind of forecasting demands state-of-science numerical models and data assimilation (use of weather observations to produce a description of the atmosphere).   The National Weather Service has greatly improved their data assimilation approach during the past year (an ensemble-based method called ENVAR) and they are working to replace the aging GFS global model.

Much of the new model and data assimilation development work occurs at NOAA's  OAR (Office of Atmospheric Research).  Guess what organization is slated to take a 26% reduction in the proposed budget plan?  You guessed it, OAR.

Excellent weather forecasts as for the upcoming storm save lives and have very positive economic impacts.  Hopefully, the needless undermining of U.S. weather prediction capacity will be stopped by wiser folks in Congress.


  1. This is indeed very worrisome.

    A glimmer of hope however, a new executive order was issued today for all government agencies to look at ways to cut redundancies and look at ways to organize to become more efficient. This would allow for an opportunity for NOAA, NCEP, NWS, etc to restructure in the ways that you have talked about over the past months and years. See:

    Perhaps now more than ever you should be banging the drums of change to the right people. Always enjoy your blogs by the way.

  2. I wouldn't worry about Trump's budget... there are mountains of less useful government functions that need to be axed. If he doesn't go in with a harsh starting position we'll never get things under control. this is negotiating tactic.

    I can't believe that people who 'believe in sustainability' can grasp the same when it comes to budget matters. Further, having centralized government provide everything crowds out private investment.

    1. It had nothing to do with the budget, if it did it wouldn't be giving more tax cuts to rich people and corporations which will increase the deficit. This is simply a vindictive and unscientific president who has chosen to side with the oil companies instead of anything related to science, intellectualism, and reason. It's all simply a war against the left, and the goal is to destroy their funding as much as possible.

  3. I enjoy the folks who say "less useful government functions that need to be axed."

    Of course, the stuff that is useful to them is different.

  4. The storm was normal to low in NYC and cities south of it. So how do you score this after the fact... that is, the forecast was correct for the inland areas but incorrect for the coastal point?

  5. Here's why many of us have lost faith in "big weather" forecasts. Might as well have shot themselves in the foot

  6. Hedge funds are now trading farm commodities and buying insurance to hedge bets based on very granular weather data. Withdrawing funding will kill-off this trading and taxes.

  7. Another over-hyped forecast that didn't materialize. When does the NWS begin to realize this hurts their credibility, not helps it? The only people these Armageddon forecasts play to are the hypesters and the sky-is-falling crowd. You know it is a major fail when the Washington Post calls them out in an opinion piece:

    "This was a well-intentioned but flawed decision that has the potential to damage public trust in weather forecasts."

    Where have we heard that before?

  8. OK Sunsnow, what then is the alternative? Underplay the potential just in case it doesn't play out as catastrophic as it could thereby avoiding the risk of seeming to be a nervous nelly?

    Think about that for a pregnant second or two.........


Please make sure your comments are civil. Name calling and personal attacks are not appropriate.

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