Thursday, September 12, 2019

President Trump Damages U.S. Weather Prediction--But He Had Help

During the past week, there has been non-stop media coverage of Trump's  problematic foray into weather forecasting.

But what has not been covered is the damage done to NOAA and the future potential of U.S. weather prediction by this incident.  And the potential damage to the careers of some exceptional public servants caught in the undertow.  Or real evaluation of what Trump said about Dorian.

Although Trump, his chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, and his Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross are prime villains in this story, some of the media, the political world, and even some in my community made the whole situation much worse than it had to be.   There are a lot of subtleties being missed in the public domain--so let me provide my take on it.

Trump works by doing outrageous things, getting lots of attention, provoking an excessive reaction from the other side, which he points to as proof he was right.  And on and on.  All kinds of folks start fighting each other, innocent individuals get hurt, and national interests are undermined.

Trump's Forecast

This unfortunate interlude began with Trump's tweet on Sept. 1st, in which he suggested that South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia and Alabama would be hit much harder than expected by Dorian.   Now the forecast had changed before his tweet, with the storm moving northward towards the Carolinas.  So he was partially correct.  But what he said about Alabama was wrong-- with the new track Alabama had a sharply reduced threat.


Within 20 minutes of Trump's tweet, the Alabama NWS responded (they are in central time).
They make a strong blanket statement that Dorian would have no impacts on Alabama.  If they had said that there was a high probability that there would be no significant impacts, they would have been in an unassailable position.  But their wording left them open to criticism for two reasons.  

First, the most up to date forecasts on Sunday morning had a slight probability (5-10%) of tropical storm winds  reaching Alabama (see below)

Second, and even more important, as the storm passed there WERE modest impacts on Alabama, with winds gusting to around 25 mph.  Below is the proof, showing the maximum winds on September 5th.  The ovals indicate the areas of gusty winds reaching 25 mph over Alabama (click to enlarge).  And sinking air forced by the storm resulted in several daily temperature record being broken in Alabama.  So the impacts were minor (perhaps a few broken branches), but if one was talking literally, there were impacts of the storm.


And why did the Birmingham NWS forecaster provide a prediction for the entire state when his/her responsibilities were solely for the northern area around Bellingham?  Established NWS protocols were not followed.

You would think that there was not enough "meat on the bone" for this Alabama forecast business to have any traction, but that was not the case.   Many media sources went nuts, with all kinds of stories making fun of Trump.  And how he was undermining weather prediction, etc.  Just a bit too much (see below)


This was revved up even further, when Trump appeared to be unfamiliar with the occurrences of category five hurricanes during recent years (there have been a few):

“I knew it existed, and I’ve seen some Category 4s ― you don’t even see them that much ― but a Category 5 is something that I don’t know that I’ve ever even heard the term other than I know it’s there,” he told reporters.

It is clear that the President is uninformed about hurricanes--and he made a mistake on the Alabama threat.  But the media went into hyper mocking mode and tried to score some points on him...and this President doesn't like to be mocked and went into full defense mode. 

What makes the media reaction so overblown is that no one takes Trump's forecasts seriously, not even the most strident Republicans.  I confirmed this by asking a few enthusiastic Trump supporters.  They love the guy because he is bull in the national china shop--but for weather predictions, they trust the National Weather Service and the National Hurricane Center.

Sharpiegate

The next stage of this sad drama occurred on Wednesday, when President Trump talked about the hurricane and used an OLD National Hurricane Center uncertainty chart (see below).  I mean really old (the previous Thursday).   He was basically saying (correctly) that the previous track took the storm into Florida and the Gulf, but the latest predictions swung the storm north.  What he said was true.  But there was a line going into Alabama on the original map suggesting an extension into the Florida Panhandle and a bit of Alabama.  He never discussed it.


But that unmentioned line cause the media and some others to go wild, claiming he was deceiving the public, illegally altering official NOAA charts, and more.    This reaction was totally excessive and was meant to put Trump on the defensive.

But if someone knew anything about some uncertainty charts, that line was not unreasonable if it refereed to the path of the hurricane at the time the chart was released.   If the storm HAD followed the path shown, the storm might well have gone into Alabama.   In fact, the ensembles of many forecast at that forecast initialization time (Thursday morning, August 29th), DID have trajectories going into Alabama (see below), which Trump actually did mention.  He was right about that.


But now the media was going in full-tilt Trump mocking mode, particularly CNN.  A lot of it was simply unfair.   And their continuous attempts to embarrass him, particularly on the Alabama business, led to something far more serious.

According to the NY Times,  Trump told his Chief of Staff, Mike Mulvaney to have NOAA deal with the situation and particularly to "clarify" or publicly correct the forecasters' position.  Mulvaney then called Wilbur Ross, Commerce Secretary, who in turn telephoned Neil Jacobs, Acting Administrator of NOAA.   The NY Times sources then suggest that Ross told Jacobs to fix the situation, threaten to fire Jacobs and others if something wasn't done.  Ross denies giving such threats.

Neil Jacob's Dilemma

Dr. Neil Jacobs, who is now running NOAA, is a very good scientist and an expert on numerical weather prediction.  He is not political, but extraordinarily dedicated to improving U.S. weather prediction.  He is the change agent that NOAA has needed for a long time.  And I am not saying this in ignorance--I know him quite well and have worked with him for years, including at his previous position as lead weather scientist at Panasonic.  But he is a young man without extensive experience in DC and dealing with its shark-filled political waters.

Neil Jacobs

According to the NY Times, he pushed back on Ross' demands.  But he was under great pressure.  What should he do?  Neil knew that the Trump administrator was supportive of improving U.S. weather prediction (as are legislators on BOTH sides of the aisle).    So should he resign or publicly oppose the President, and jeopardize the potential to enhance weather prediction, which would save lives and property?  Or should he write an innocuous statement that was completely true and one that any real meteorologist would immediately know was meaningless, but would satisfy the weather-ignorant in the Trump administration?

You might disagree with the latter approach, but that is what Neal did--hoping to protect the long-term progress of US weather prediction.   Here is the statement that NOAA released on Friday


Let's examine it.    The first paragraph is completely correct--the National Hurricane Center guidance DID have a chance (admittedly a small one) of tropical storm force winds getting over Alabama.   And the Birmingham NWS forecasters said there would be NO IMPACTS and did not qualify the risks properly (impacts of what?, suggesting the chances were zero % rather than the predicted 5-10%).      Quite honestly, I have been at a number of professional meetings on this very topic, where forecasters are advised to use probabilities more and not to communicate risks as 0 or 100%.

This statement is like a dentist telling you that you did a great job on cleaning your teeth, but forgot to floss one tooth.

So Neil's approach was a clever way of not really criticizing the forecasters seriously but seeming to say something in the minds of the uninitiated.  I smiled when I read it.

OK, perhaps he should have called NWS Director Louis Uccellini and NOAA AOR Head Craig McClean and others to create a pact where they would all stand up to the Trump folks--but such an approach had risks with such an unsteady and unpredictable group in the White House.  What he did was not unreasonable and not unhonorable.  And he is getting severely criticized in some quarters for it....unfairly I believe.

The Knives Come Out

The NOAA statement caused a firestorm, both inside and outside of NOAA with folks suggesting it represented a profound attack on NOAA's independence, of unethical behavior from NOAA leadership, a degradation of NWS forecasters and worse.  Some individuals inside of NOAA, who should have understood the dynamics of the situation and what Neil was trying to do, took out the knives.


Just classic Trump---he stresses an agency or group until the good guys start turning on each other, producing the bedlam that is his hallmark.   And the impacts are profoundly bad for the American people.

On Tuesday, Neil talked to the professional group encompassing many National Weather Service forecasters (the National Weather Association).  Instead of discussing the key innovation he was working on to improve U.S. numerical weather prediction (the EPIC center), he spent his time giving an emotional talk about the importance of forecasters in the National Weather Service.  Everyone listened respectfully and at the end his received polite applause.  But the momentum to make U.S. weather prediction a world leader again has been greatly lessened.

It is time for my community to come together, stop attacking each other about how we deal with Trump, and get back to work making U.S. weather prediction the best in the world.   And I hope that political leadership in both parties will protect people like Neil Jacobs, whose only goal is to serve the American people in such a critical capability for the nation.  The battle between Trump and his opponents is loud and energetic, but NOAA should not be caught in the middle and end up collateral damage.

33 comments:

  1. I treat Trump statements as the complete and total nonsense they are and ignore them, except for understanding the potential impacts caused by the statements themselves, not the reality he wants to portray. Doing this has created a space of peace in my life. It doesn't mean I'm apathetic or consider him any less than vile. I just choose not to climb into the constant fight anymore and focus on doing things that count, like writing my congresscritters and tending my garden and looking forward to I can vote him and his cronies out. It's one persons approach but works for me.

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    1. Thank You Steve! It's the same for me. It's a mystery to me why people CHOOSE to get involved in this kind of stuff like they do. I keep saying.. if these psychopaths like Trump are simply IGNORED, they will dry up and blow away like the weeds they are. But the attention they get just keeps fueling their dysfunction and on and on it goes. Come on all you smart people - figure it out!

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  2. Cliff, The newest ENSO forecast was released today which strengthens the Neutral probabilities. What will happen to the BLOB off the west coast?

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  3. I am a Trump supporter, but honestly, I would never rely on a presidential weather briefing for any insight on what a storm is doing or how I should prepare. Maybe he shouldn't have said anything, but the storm was massive and there was, undoubtedly, pressure to say or do something. He got out over his tips, but he does that. There is an unreasonable expectation on him, and second-hand offense-taking. "But, But...you scared people unnecessarily...", I highly doubt that, and if you were scared, again, my main point is don't look to politicians for information on personal safety. They aren't experts, they retell info (and often get it wrong) and completely lack the specific info needed for specific areas.

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    1. There was no pressure on him to do anything. He mentioned AL as a way to fluff his supposed base.

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    2. Also, the storm was not massive. It was very small. Powerful, but very very small.

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  4. ... and Trump could have just said, "My bad. Old information. Hurricane path forecasting is complicated. Alabama seems to be safe from this one."

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  5. Wait... So the forecast he held up was not something he made up, but was actually an "old" - and completely incorrect - forecast from NOAA?

    No one would have ever known that from the press coverage.

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  6. I am also a ztrump supporter and love him as our President, brashness and all but weather predictions? Ill stick to the weather forecasters and most of the media are liars anyway!

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  7. It seems Neil Jacobs took the long view by taking a pragmatic approach. I don't see what would have been a better choice for him. Let's hope the meteorologist community finds common ground to move forward together with their common goals.

    Embracing divisiveness is understandable in these times, but regrouping toward shared progress is a better way.

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  8. As always it's Trump this, Trump that, but as ever it comes down to Orange Man Bad! Why anyone allows any one individual to live in their heads rent - free 24/7 never fails to amaze. Gowing up in the ridiculously corrupt environs of Chicago and all of the attendant histironics,I learned to tune irrelevant information out.

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  9. You can argue that the media overreacted to Trump's initial mistake. But to me the threat to fire NOAA officials if they didn't criticize their own forecasters was way over the line, and there has not been (and probably could not be) an overreaction to it. It is reminiscent of the Reagan administration's interference with the CDC during the AIDS crisis and it could potentially have a similarly deadly outcome.

    To his credit Jacobs has been putting a lot of effort into cleaning this up:

    https://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2019/09/10/us/10reuters-trump-hurricane.html

    But Ross and Mulvaney should be dragged over the coals, and if they had any honor (an admittedly outlandish suggestion) they would resign.

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  10. Minor (?) correction needed: "This reaction was totally excessive and was mean to put Trump on the defensive."

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  11. Only a few more months and We The People can potentially perform Trump's signature move in a turn the of tables manner....YOU'RE FIRED, Mr. President.

    In the mean time, its another challenge to weather (Dadpun!)

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  12. Hey all, its understandable that if Cliff is slightly critical of Trump, you will show your support. That's fine.

    Trump is not the omnipotent knower of all, however. He is not the smartest person in many rooms which again is fine. He just has to delegate to those that ARE the smartest person in the room, listen to them, let them do their jobs and not always override them. or worse, fire them for having a different opinion. If anything Trump is at best a generalist. He needs to listen to his highly trained specialists and filter their input through something else other than politics.

    That's all. Carry on.

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  13. @travelgirl ... are there studies showing most of the media are liars?

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    1. Yes, listen to it! Then check the facts over what really happened and was said, it doesnt take science to figure it out!

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    2. Care to be more specific? "The Media" can cover everything from infowars to the NYT so it helps to know exactly which sources you are accusing of habitually lying.

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  14. As someone who wrote in Vermin Supreme in 2016 and who will do it again next year, I have to laugh. The only people who will be appalled by Trump's "forecast" are the people who were appalled that he was elected. No one else takes his hurricane forecasts seriously, except for Democrats prone to bouts of hysteria.

    Children, children, children! At this point, are you still unable to see when you are being taunted by Dennis the Menace? Honest to God, just how stupid and naive are you, for God's sake?

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    1. Ah, yes... we are being taunted by Dennis the Menace.
      I am sure that the children ripped away from their parents on the border will and dying from lack fo suitable medical care will feel better when you explain to them that "it's ok, you are just pawns in a political game to rile up the liberals".
      Also, you are missing the entire concern - the President is so insecure that he is threatening weather forecasters jobs and careers to soothe his ego, while at the smae time trying to change history. The president misspoke on old data - end of story. He should have said - whoops, shouldn't have included Alabama, and moved on. Instead he reacted like... well i don''t know.... maybe "children, children, children"?

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    2. I get it: You're a Democrat. You hate us, and you hate the way we live. You are for every illegal immigrant, every drug dealer, and every criminal. You are infected with Trump Derangement Syndrome. Now that the Democratic Party has made crystal clear that, yes, they DO want to take our guns, you should get ready for another disappointment next year.

      Trump is a clown and it's too bad he is there, but the Democratic Party has driven itself into the ditch and caused people to vote that way out of desperation. Trump won't be re-elected because people like him; he'll be re-elected because people understand how much the Democratic Party hates this country's guts.

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  15. Off his resume, true. Heaven only knows who was advising him, if anyone. Politicans!

    That said, I've just been reading through the new, OWSC "September 2019 Report and Outlook" (Volume XIII Issue 9), and from this perch I find the last three pages (8-11) incredible, too. Supposedly August was hot and dry in this area. Not exactly. Not remotely accurate. The "mean temperature" for Bellingham AP is listed - I guess the AP means airport - and this says the "Departure from Normal" there was 2.5 degrees F warmer. Bellingham Airport is NOT representative of conditions in the general area, and even less representative of the county on whole. The reality is that summer weather here has been noticably cooler and wetter than recent summers. Why the table on Page 9 used the "climate normal baseline of 1981-2010" is a mystery to me. Maybe it's the timespan that resulted in the biggest blips.

    "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows," and it may be that what's been driving the wind during this drought is a lot of hot air. Put another way, politicians have no business making weather predictions.

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    1. completely false. We definitely need weathermen to tell "which way the wind blows".

      So abundantly obvious, if the puzzling persistent success of the Farmers Almanac is any indication

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  16. Most of the media are all liars? The exception being Fox? Perhaps a better statement is they provide facts that conflict with your desired beliefs. That doesn’t make them liars,

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  17. Wow. I'm an average citizen who is not involved in all this, but I enjoy following the weather a bit. I don't really get why everyone is freaking out, but thanks for explaining. Wow.

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  18. Thanks for your very cogent remarks on this very odd topic. Bashing the NHC/NWS is futile, we're one of the few federal agencies that consistently gets high marks from everyone. Coast Guard is another -- remember Katrina?

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  19. https://eos.org/opinions/altered-forecasts-and-threatened-firings-at-the-national-weather-service

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  20. I suggest reading this assessment from past administrators of NOAA

    Baker, D. J., J. Lubchenco, and K. D. Sullivan (2019), Altered forecasts and threatened firings at the National Weather Service, Eos, 100, https://doi.org/10.1029/2019EO132697. Published on 10 September 2019.

    Which contains the following:

    "To make their case, the political appointees twisted the facts to justify inaccurate statements made by the president. This is truly dangerous territory. It is beyond sad to see political appointees undermining the superb, life-saving work of NOAA’s talented and dedicated career servants and putting American communities at risk. The NWS did an excellent job in forecasting the track and strength of Hurricane Dorian and should be recognized for that."

    "NOAA’s political leaders’ criticism of the NWS Forecast Office in Birmingham, Ala., was a direct violation of core principles of NOAA’s Scientific Integrity Policy. The threatened firings by the secretary of commerce and subsequent actions by political leaders directly undermined the need for NOAA scientists to be open and transparent about their work. These actions mean that they are not free to speak to the media and the public about scientific and technical matters based on their official work."

    and also this official statement from NOAA Acting Chief Scientist

    https://research.noaa.gov/article/ArtMID/587/ArticleID/2489/A-Message-from-Craig-McLean-Hurricane-Dorian-and-Exceptional-Service

    "Unfortunately, the press release of last Friday violated this trust and violated NOAA's policies of scientific integrity. In my role as Assistant Administrator for Research, and as I continue to administratively serve as Acting Chief Scientist, I am pursuing the potential violations of our NOAA Administrative Order on Scientific Integrity."

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  21. Yes. I think everyone agrees that politics and politicians have no place in weather science (observations and forecasts). My Bob Dylan quote referred to political hot air, not real weather scientists. Get a grip.

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  22. This is not about a weather forecast or Trumps's acumen as a weather person. This is about power and it's abuse and personal integrity. President Trump altered with a sharpie a NWS (see Washington Post) forecast and his chief of staff through Wilbur Ross, Commerce secretary pressure Jacobs to make the forecasts agree with what he said. Let's indeed look at Jacobs's(unsigned) message. The second paragraph to us uninitiated appears to throw the Birmingham NWS under the bus. They were right to protest later. Jacobs did not have the integrity to stand for his people and they were rightfully upset and we as citizens should be on guard when political pressure is brought to bear to alter scientific data where lives and decisions are at stake and when those in charge bend to that pressure, especially when it is at the expense of the people who report to them.

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  23. For a much fuller & fact-based story than media, Cliff, pundits and partisan trolls have given, I suggest reading
    https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/this-isnt-just-a-stupid-story-its-a-big-story-an-oral-history-of-sharpiegate/2019/09/13/504b63c4-d404-11e9-9610-fb56c5522e1c_story.html

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  24. So where do you obtain your irrefutable corroborating evidence? Info Wars? Rush, Breitbart? The Daily Wire? Fox Nation? Or are Trump's Tweets all the evidence required? Perhaps you work in the White House even?

    Look, if those media outlets are your sources, than sorry to say but there might be a bias. That's OK. It aligns with the thought process of you and your tribe and no one is going to talk you out of it, since this is America of the Absolutes.

    Now lets pretend that there are those odd ducks called "scientists" that use a universal and impartial language called "Math" which is counter to the current decision making influence called "Conjecture". There is also the prime motivational force of Trump called "Emotion" which runs counter to "Logic", also employed by those crazy scientist people but definitely NOT by Trump.

    Ultimately, would you rather have Trump or Mr. Spock on your away team, honestly? Especially facing the unknown? The atmosphere really is unpredictable enough to be considered an unknown most of the time.

    Enter those scientists again. Some of those scientists are good church going, God fearing Christians who are as wholesome as all of the decade of the 1950s depicted by "Leave it to Beaver". They still use those math logic tools, however. They also just want to do their jobs and have the politics checked at the door.

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  25. Great commentary, Cliff. Appreciate the insider's perspective on both the weather science side and the politics of it.

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