A Gathering Storm: Shutdown’s Impact on Meteorology, Preparedness and Related Outreach

15 October 2013 by Matt Shipman, posted in Uncategorized

Image: the Earth Sciences and Image Analysis Laboratory, Johnson Space Center.

Editor’s Note: One type of science communication that most people take for granted is the weather forecast. And, like many other types of science communication, meteorology is suffering due to the partial shutdown of the U.S. government. To get more information on the shutdown’s impact on this aspect of science communication, I solicited this guest post from Marshall Shepherd, president of the American Meteorological Society and director of the Atmospheric Sciences Program at the University of Georgia. His remarks are certainly applicable to meteorology, but are also relevant to the science community as a whole.

As we slog through the muddy landscape of another week of the U.S. government’s partial shutdown (literally, given significant “Beltway” rainfall this past weekend), it may not be apparent to U.S. citizens how gains in weather preparedness, communication, outreach, and education are being “evaporated” by this impasse.

Even with solid warnings and forecasts, lives and property were still lost in Superstorm Sandy, the Colorado Floods, or the Moore/El Reno tornadoes.  For many years now, I have argued that the next great breakthroughs within the weather community may be related to advances in communications, outreach, and education.  Improved computer models, satellites, and radar systems will remain essential. But, in reality, a “perfect forecast” doesn’t guarantee that lives or property will be preserved.

I addressed this in previous commentary elsewhere. Herein, I want to focus on the more subtle ways the shutdown is harming the organs of the weather enterprise body. In other words, vital parts that the public may not see (e.g., outreach, education, scholarly communication).

The shortsighted citizen might conclude that all is well since they turn on the TV or computer, and their forecast, warning or satellite image is there. However, that perspective is missing a whole lot of the story. National Weather Service (NWS) colleagues are working on the “promise” of pay. One NWS colleague shared that they have stopped auto payments, halted charitable giving, and reduced spending. Oh, by the way (this will be a recurring theme), nearly one million federal workers reducing spending also harms local and national economic vitality. Better yet, what if these people just decided to not work on such a promise.

Marshall Shepherd (Image courtesy of TEDx Atlanta)

Some would complain if a meteorologist interrupted their TV program to warn of a tornado. On the other hand, those same people might complain if their house was damaged, and they felt no warning was provided. Many people are from the “Show Me” state because they have to see things before they believe them to be true or act (e.g., if their house is damaged by that storm). But let’s review the things that are not obvious to the “Show Me” citizen that can still affect their life.

NOAA’s WeatherReady Nation is an exciting effort that seeks to build community resilience to extreme weather and water events. Other efforts like the NOAA Storm Ready Program have similar goals. Warning Coordination Meteorologists and other colleagues within NOAA serve as a vital link to our schools, broadcasters, emergency managers, and stakeholders. Yet, the shutdown has sent many of these professionals home or shut down community outreach activities. There is extremely high value in an NWS meteorologist speaking in a school. Studies confirm that K-12 students convey best practices to their parents. Even now, there is public confusion on whether to leave your home during tornado warnings or whether a Category 1 Sandy poses as much of a threat to New York City as a Category 4 storm would. At the University of Georgia, research in our “Deconstructing Superstorm Sandy” seminar found that many of the victims that perished from storm surge did not speak English as a primary language. This is a communication issue, not a science issue. This is not the time to shutter outreach and communication activities that preserve human lives.

During the Colorado Floods of 2013, I was in Reading, England but was able to monitor weather information and guidance from emergency managers on Twitter and other social media. While many Forecast Office sites are up and running, does anyone else find it discomforting that to get this message “Due to the Federal government shutdown, NOAA.gov and most associated web sites are unavailable”? Reducing conduits of information to the public is not wise given the critical role that the Internet and social media play in information sharing, crowdsourcing, and warnings. Recently, the NASA Hurricane Resource was down. This is a site that would normally provide valuable information to U.S. and global visitors on a storm like Cyclone Phailin in India.

Speaking of information sharing, numerous NWS and other federal colleagues received notices restricting participation in this week’s National Weather Association meeting in Charleston. Unlike perception, these meetings are not funfests. They provide an opportunity for the critical exchange of scientific ideas and techniques that transition to practice. But, as one NOAA colleague shared with me, “the research to operations process is essentially closed” due to the shutdown.

Due to the shutdown and sequestration, several NOAA/NWS staff have not been able to attend important meetings or conferences with front-line emergency managers. By the way (again), many of our valued FEMA colleagues are sitting idle in the midst of hurricane season and as severe storms, blizzards, and wildfires rage around the country. The American Meteorological Society (AMS), of which I currently serve as President, hosts its annual meeting in February. This meeting is one of the largest gatherings of colleagues in our field, but planning efforts are currently hampered by the shutdown. By the way, when large meetings like NWA or AMS are affected, so are local hotels, restaurants, and merchants.

The academic and research sector is taking a huge hit. This is one of the places that the “Show Me” citizen struggles with seeing impact. They enjoy their smart pads, smartphones, advanced medical services or GPS, yet don’t realize that such conveniences didn’t just pop out of thin air. They come from investments in research and development. I honestly fear that shortsightedness related to research and development in this country will mean that my children will live in a relatively less-advanced society than we have now. Meteorology and climatology are relatively young, and we are still learning new things that can improve our weather forecasting ability and knowledge of the climate system. I was absolutely horrified to learn that the Antarctic Research Program is essentially being shut down by the shutdown. What kind of message does this send to our partners around the world, and to curious kids in the U.S. that want to be scientists or engineers?

As I was writing this commentary, a colleague shared that his graduate students are unable to access critical data for their research and that an important coordination meeting for an upcoming NASA Earth Science mission is in jeopardy because NASA participation is in limbo. One of our graduate students shared with me that he is unable to move forward with his Doctoral Dissertation Completion Grant application typically provided by NSF.

These various impacts will trickle into lower productivity and output in scholarly journals. And by the way (again), shutting vital programs like the Antarctic program because of temporary budget stalemates probably cost more in the long run if they have to be restored to capacity later.

Who knows how many undergraduate or graduate students will find themselves without funding next year because decisions on research funding are on hold at the National Science Foundation, NOAA, or NASA. And oh by the way (again), major universities collect a portion of research funding to support other aspects of the institution, so all students suffer from these delays.

While I worry about the erosion of capacity at specific institutions, I worry most about the general erosion of science literacy and our standing in the world. The U.S. historically has led in science and technology. We sent a man to the moon for gosh sake. We have robotic vehicles roaming around on Mars. We have a Precipitation Radar flying around in space measuring rainfall on Earth.

But now, we see a country that:

  • cannot send its scientists to international meetings,
  • is sending a “cloudy” message to students about how it values science/technology education and research,
  • wants to protect citizens from harmful storms, but is undercutting the very ability to do so,
  • has created an environment that makes exchange of science information to peers, practitioners, stakeholders, and the public very difficult, and
  • is defaulting on the great legacy of scientific and technological leadership that inspired people like me.

Even with all of the things that I have written, I worry most that a generation of students is increasingly looking at places like NASA, NOAA, and the National Weather Service as the last place on Earth they would want to start a career. Imagine that!


3 Responses to “A Gathering Storm: Shutdown’s Impact on Meteorology, Preparedness and Related Outreach”

  1. Carla Bosteder Reply | Permalink

    It is okay if you miss a meeting. Teachers can figure out how to make their own science lesson plans. Research and Development will continue - it just may be delayed a bit. Guess what? The world really is still revolving. Millions of people in this country have been out of work months and even years. A few days for for a few scientists is not a big deal. Try relating to the rest of America, please. Your post is absurd.

  2. Matt Shipman Reply | Permalink

    Hi Carla,
    a couple points worth making here, I think.

    1). All employment has value. That's what makes it employment -- the fact that people are willing to pay for the services provided. However, not all types of work require the same degree of continuity (i.e., not all types of work have the same amount of flexibility in regard to scheduling, etc.). Teachers, for example, can't decide to work whatever schedules they prefer -- they have to comply with the regular schedules of their schools and students. If they didn't do that, their students would suffer -- and the stakes there are high. Many scientists are bound by similar, or even more stringent, constraints. For example, my understanding is that there is a three-week window in which a NASA Mars mission can be launched (it's in November). If that window was missed, the planets wouldn't align again properly until 2016 (not in a horoscope way, but in an orbital way). And many studies related to human health, ecosystems, toxicology, etc., rely on an ongoing series of observations in order to determine effects. If those observations are disrupted, you have to start from scratch (if you can start again at all). Even a brief disruption can make months or years worth of work effectively useless. And unfortunately, you can't adequately computerize complex observations of complex organisms (or, for the most part, even simple ones), so that the experiments can continue without human supervision. AI hasn't reached that level of sophistication yet, at least not on a scale that is economically feasible. Nor can you computerize the physical labor and expertise associated with, say, a rocket launch.

    Meteorology is often every bit as time-sensitive. Providing adequate knowledge about flash flooding, for example (or high winds that could exacerbate wild fires, or any other meteorological phenomena with the potential to cause grave damage to human lives or property), is reliant on having the right people, looking at the right place, at the right time, with the right training. If staff aren't there, or don't have the relevant training, things can slip. The difference between saving and losing lives can be a matter of minutes -- and the amount of time meteorologists have to provide that warning is contingent on staffing levels, technology and training. All of those things have been affected by the shutdown. And the technology and techniques meteorologists use is a direct result of research. It's important, and bemoaning its loss -- even temporarily -- is certainly not risible.

    2). Perhaps more importantly -- at least on a human level -- I think it's worth noting that suffering is not a zero-sum game. There are many people suffering as a result of economic woes in the U.S. and elsewhere. However, the fact that one group of people is suffering does not prevent another group of people from suffering. Nor should one group's suffering prevent other groups from speaking up about their experiences. All groups adversely affected by the state of the economy have the right to be upset and speak out about it. An open discussion of consequences may lead to wiser decisions in the future.

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