How shutdown affects weather forecasting

Though hurricane season runs from June through November, it is during the “off-season” when forecasters and researchers refine and improve their forecasting models, methods and techniques, allowing forecasters to enhance the accuracy of storm predictions.

With the partial government shutdown in its third week, and no end in sight, much of the research and development the National Hurricane Center relies on to improve hurricane forecasts is in jeopardy, along with badly needed upgrades to the main American weather model.

“It’s a tight schedule,” Eric Blake, a hurricane specialist with the National Hurricane Center (NHC) told CNN, “we try to fit in as many improvements as possible before the next hurricane season.”

While there is no good time for a government shutdown to bring the work of so many federal workers to a halt, according to Blake, “it is much worse for this to happen during the off-season.” Blake is the NHC’s Union Steward to the National Weather Service’s Employee Organization and spoke to CNN on its behalf.

During the hurricane season, the forecasters, which are working during the shutdown, would be doing their mission-critical work forecasting active storms in the Atlantic and Eastern Pacific Oceans. Because of this, research and development is frozen during the hurricane season.

From December through early May, however, the center’s forecasters work with researchers and scientists at other governmental agencies to tweak and upgrade the models that are used to project the storms — and many of these workers are currently furloughed.

One of these agencies is the Environmental Modeling Center (EMC), which, like the NHC, is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Center for Environmental Prediction (NCEP).

The EMC develops and improves weather and climate predictions through numerical models, and right now should be working with Blake and other hurricane forecasters to make adjustments to the models based upon new research and lessons learned from the previous hurricane season.

And considering the forecast challenges presented by Hurricane Florence and Hurricane Michael last year, these months are critical to improving the forecast models and implementing new research and techniques.

But of the 200 people that work on these and other NOAA forecast models at the EMC, and their various government contractors, only one of them is currently working through the shutdown. The other 199 are deemed “non-critical” and are furloughed, unable to access their computers to even check on the progress of their models until the government shutdown ends.

According to Suru Saha, one of the furloughed computer modelers at the EMC, the longer the shutdown goes on, the less prepared we will be when the next hurricane season begins.

“This is lost time that cannot be made up,” Saha told CNN. Saha also serves as the center’s union steward to the NWS Employee Organization. “It’s gone and it will effect future operations.”

But it isn’t just hurricane model upgrades that are being neglected during the partial government shutdown.

The EMC oversees NCEP’s entire suite of global forecast models, including the Global Forecast System model, or GFS model, which is often referred to as the “American model,” and is used to forecast everything from nor’easters to tornado outbreaks.

The American model has come under fire in recent years after falling notably behind the European’s model, the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts model, in high profile events such as Hurricane Sandy.

But the GFS was due to get a significant makeover over the next month, known as the FV3 upgrade.

The update promises to better utilize advances in computing technology and data processing to “deliver better, more timely forecasts to serve the growing needs of our forecasters and the weather enterprise,” according to NOAA’s website.

“We’re banking on it to do great things,” Saha told CNN of the upgraded GFS-FV3, “every system we have have is dependent on the quality of the GFS forecast.”

“But all of that is on hold,” she said. “I don’t see that happening in February.” NOAA confirmed to CNN that these upgrades are likely to be delayed due to the shutdown.

“There are improvements scheduled in the next upgrade window that may be delayed due to the shutdown,” a NOAA spokesperson said, though no time table was given as to how long that delay might be once the shutdown has ended.

In addition to delays in upgrades, there have been concerns that the shutdown could be resulting in a degradation of the current American GFS model, and thus the forecasts millions of people receive through apps and other forecast systems that rely upon the model’s data.

But the NOAA spokesperson pushed back on these reports, claiming that “the accuracy of the nation’s forecast model is maintained to the same standards as normal … and the resources [the forecasters] need to perform essential operations are being provided.”

But even if the forecast models are maintained during the shutdown, it is clear they are not getting better. And that could mean the forecast for a major hurricane in September or October of this year isn’t as good as it could be.

The National Hurricane Center has reduced their average forecast track error for tropical systems in the Atlantic from 220 miles to 70 miles since the year 2000, with almost steady improvement year over year. But Blake is afraid that same improvement won’t be possible this year.

“It’s going to be more status quo next year,” Blake said, referring to the lack of research and development and new initiatives that the shutdown is causing.

And the shutdown threatens to reduce our country’s preparedness for hurricanes in other ways beyond just the forecast.

The National Hurricane Center is set to host a series of meetings over the next several weeks with FEMA for emergency managers and key decision makers along the Gulf Coast and East Coast, that Blake said are designed to familiarize them with important products and services so they can make the best informed decision for their regions.

“If the shutdown continues and we have to cancel the meetings with FEMA, then that will hurt America’s hurricane readiness,” Blake said, which could potentially place American lives and property at risk.

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