Last week, the United States Senate briefly flirted with the idea of actually doing something useful. Depending on whom you ask, the National Weather Service Improvement Act was either a positive step toward modernization or destructive enough to give Rick Santorum the quivers. Even though the bill is now dead and gone, the idea of fundamentally restructuring the National Weather Service is a debate worth having.
Sen. John Thune (R-SD) introduced the bill on June 16 as an attempt to fundamentally restructure the National Weather Service in a way we haven’t seen in more than 20 years. The bill called for the agency to develop a plan that establishes six regional Weather Forecast Offices (WFOs) around the United States, each co-located with an existing major university or state/federal agency’s offices.
It doesn’t sound like much, but the proposed change was a dramatic downsizing that would have had enormous implications on the way the National Weather Service works in the future.
Rather than pumping out forecasts from one central location, the National Weather Service of today is a pretty decentralized agency, with 122 individual WFOs scattered around the country. Each office covers a jurisdiction known as a County Warning Area (CWA), which can be as small as a couple of counties or as large as entire states.
The benefit of such a localized system is that a staff of dedicated meteorologists can provide local expertise and greater amounts of attention to a relatively small part of the country. For instance, forecasters at NWS Birmingham are able to use their knowledge of things like terrain and general meteorological quirks (like temperatures always being lower at that one spot) to provide accurate forecasts for residents in the area, details that can be easily missed by forecasters not familiar with the area.
If 122 offices sounds like quite a few, it’s nothing compared to the number of offices they had before the first major push toward modernization in the 1990s. The agency had more than 200 (two hundred!) offices around the country prior to the Weather Service Modernization Act of 1992, which consolidated that tangled web into the measly 122 we see today.
It (Was) Just a Bill
...yes it was only a bill. Sen. Thune introduced S. 1573—National Weather Service Improvement Act—on June 16, and it was an uphill climb for it to survive the arduous legislative process. That bill is now dead. Deceased. It is no more. It is an ex-bill.
On Monday, June 22, Sen. Thune and Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) introduced a substitute bill—Weather Alerts for a Ready Nation Act of 2015—that focuses on improving communication of severe weather risks as opposed to completely overhauling the agency itself.
The original bill was shockingly forceful in its attempt to radically transform the agency into a leaner, more streamlined entity. Here are the major outlines of the original piece of legislation, before Monday’s substitution.
The Act was just eleven pages long, directing the National Weather Service to establish a plan to shrink itself according to the specifications laid out in the legislation. Among them include establishing the six aforementioned regional WFOs, replacing the 122 offices that currently exist within three to five years of the Act’s passage.
The bill also mandated that the National Weather Service must “hire or retain” a Warning Coordination Meteorologist at each of the 122 existing WFOs to act as a liaison between the agency and the public and local officials. Warning Coordination Meteorologists already exist at each local office, and under the text of the Act, they’d have remained in largely the same role as they carry out today.
The legislation mandated that any savings accrued by this centralization should be used to improve the National Weather Service’s tools, such as expanded supercomputers, additional Doppler weather radars to fill gaps in coverage, more weather stations to take surface observations, and investing in research and improved ways to communicate risks and urgent alerts to the public.
A great amount of scientific and sociological research has gone into the public’s perception of severe weather forecasts and alerts issued by the National Weather Service, most notably those related to tornadoes and severe thunderstorms. Even well-educated individuals have a hard time keeping the terms “tornado warning” and “tornado watch” straight, and depending on their access to technology, some people may not receive lifesaving alerts until it’s too late to act appropriately.
One of the sections of the bill requires that the National Weather Service evaluate its current warning system (both the alerts themselves and the dissemination of such), coming up with solutions to fix (the many) weak spots they discover, implementing them within four years of the bill’s passage.
This, along with the following section about contractors, are the only parts of the original legislation that survived in the substitution.
They also want to expose and put an end to any shifty practices with regard to contractor positions in the National Weather Service. The most glaring case is a senior official who retired from the agency, only to come back the very next day as a contractor in a consulting position he was instrumental in creating. This is generally frowned upon.
The Substitution Is Still a Positive Step
Even though I am in favor of taking a serious look at how the National Weather Service can improve itself—had it gotten that far, their restructuring plan likely would have been a treasure trove of positive steps toward improvement—the substitute bill is still pretty good. We need to take a good look at how we communicate severe weather in the United States. The sheer number of alerts is overwhelming, and it’s easy to forget what means what, especially since so many of the alerts are associated with specific criteria.
Did you know that a Winter Weather Advisory is a step above a Winter Storm Watch? Do you know the difference between a Flood Warning and an Areal Flood Advisory? How many people can correctly point out the difference between a Tornado Watch and a Tornado Warning? Let’s not even get started on something as fundamental as severe weather outlooks.
These are major issues in weather forecasting today—you could produce forecasts with phenomenal accuracy, but they’re useless if people don’t understand what you’re telling them. The substitute bill plans to look at ways to remedy this issue, and that’s a huge step forward.
The Santorum Problem
Any discussion over changing the status quo in the National Weather Service takes place with an elephant in the room that adds a layer of distrust and discomfort to the conversation.
One of the most infamous bills introduced in Congress in recent years was the National Weather Service Duties Act of 2005, a steaming pile of legislation introduced by former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA). The bill would have abolished the National Weather Service as we know it, privatizing the agency to such an extent that private weather companies would have exclusive rights to the data and information we paid for with our tax dollars in order to sell it back to us.
This horrifying thought is compounded by the fact that the bill’s introduction may have been influenced by AccuWeather. In addition to thousands dollars donated directly to the senator’s campaigns over the years, AccuWeather CEO Joel Myers donated $2,000 to Santorum’s PAC—America’s Foundation—on April 12, 2005, two days before the former senator introduced the legislation.
Thankfully, that bill died a painful death in committee. There don’t seem to be any indications that this bill would have followed the same path of complete destruction, but again, reducing the National Weather Service to a handful of offices is seen as tantamount to abolition by some of the status quo’s staunchest supporters.
Weighing the Pros and Cons
The Act may not have resulted in the death of the agency, but it would have created just as many issues as it aimed to resolve. Threading the needle between the pros and cons was a delicate task for supporters of the bill, and vociferous opposition from the bill from many meteorologists—including the National Weather Service Employees Organization—appears instrumental in killing the National Weather Service Improvement Act before it had a chance to see the light of day.
Here are some of the issues and solutions the Act would have presented.
Pro: Savin’ Those Zeros
Everything comes down to money, especially in a slash-happy Republican Congress. That’s not meant to be a partisan dig—Republicans genuinely seem to enjoy slashing services they deem wasteful in order to save money and redirect it to other services or very important tax cuts.
(Now that was a dig.)
The prospect of shrinking the National Weather Service to save money—the agency accounted for about a billion dollars, or 0.023% of the federal budget, in FY2013—is practically nothing in the grand scheme of things. It’s the equivalent of saving $6.90 if you make $30,000 a year.
But there’s a catch! The shrinkage proposed by the bill could have resulted in some nice savings if done in an efficient manner, and by law (unless they change it), this Act would have required that all of those savings were reinvested back into the agency in order to improve its instruments and services. Aside from that whole “losing jobs” thing, the cuts could have been enormously beneficial if they were truly reinvested in the agency.
Now, speaking of jobs...
Con: The Great Culling
For the sake of simplicity, let’s say that each National Weather Service office employs ten meteorologists to keep a watchful eye over the weather in their neck of the woods (sorry Al). That’s 1,220 meteorologists across all WFOs. If you were to divide those 1,220 experts up among six newly-created regional offices, that’s about 203 meteorologists per office.
That ain’t happening, and that means there would have been a Great Culling. People would lose their jobs. Lots of people, most likely. Not only would people simply lose their jobs, but the agency would have lost an untold number of skilled, talented individuals who are instrumental in keeping the agency on top of its game in both calm and calamity.
Local weather forecast offices are already stretched too thin when active weather plays out, and they can’t always rely on the help of their neighboring offices, especially if something like a severe weather outbreak or landfalling hurricane demands the attention of a large number of offices at once.
Fewer meteorologists would mean less overall skill employed by the agency, fewer eyes keeping watch over our huge country, fewer people with intricate knowledge of local phenomena, and less leeway if something big happens (and it will happen).
The prospect of saving jobs is the greatest benefit of the Act being scrapped.
Pro: Goodbye County Warning Areas?
One of the things that annoys me the most about the National Weather Service is its frustrating adherence to jurisdiction. If a tornado is heading toward the edge of the area covered by the National Weather Service in Roanoke, Virginia, they will continue to warn the storm up to the very edge of their jurisdiction. Anything even one mile beyond that border is the responsibility of the neighboring office. If National Weather Service in Raleigh, N.C., is slow to act, people living right along the boundary may not receive warning in enough time to act.
I live along the boundary in that example, and I’ve witnessed countless occasions where warning polygons inexplicably stop a mile from me when the storm isn’t losing an ounce of strength. We’ve had snow forecasts that predicted a dusting here, but just two miles away across the boundary line, the neighboring office predicts six inches of snow.
We’ve seen these ridiculous warnings and forecasts play out time and time again due to the ridiculous nature of forecasting to an artificial set of lines we draw on the map. Nature does not adhere to our political boundaries. The National Weather Service needs to be able to break out of its artificial boundaries, and this legislation may have allowed it to do just that.
Last October, I wrote a long post urging the National Weather Service to rethink County Warning Areas, ending with the conclusion that the agency needs to abolish its offices’ jurisdictions in order to more effectively issue forecasts for the country. The solution I skirted around at the time—either out of subconscious denial or whatever—is the fact that you can’t really remove these boundary lines without removing the offices.
Assuming the six regional offices didn’t absurdly decide to forecast to a meaningless geographical boundary—y’know, instead of predicting the weather the way it actually happens—one of the great benefits of this reorganization would have meant smoother, more meaningful forecasts that follow both common sense and the laws of physics.
This solution is but a dream, now, and that is the greatest disappointment to come out of this legislative debacle.
For more on the scourge of County Warning Areas, see:
- Frustrating Bureaucracy Leads to Ridiculous Tornado Warning
- National Weather Service Issues Insane, Physically Impossible Snowfall Forecast
Con: Forecast Quality
One of the things specifically ordered by the Act was that the National Weather Service must ensure that “local forecast quality will not be degraded” by the centralization and inevitable Great Culling of meteorologists that will come soon after.
It’s hard to see a scenario in which the National Weather Service is able to reduce the number of meteorologists on its payroll while maintaining the same quality it has today. In order to produce stellar products with fewer meteorologists, it would take an enormous effort on the part of the agency to develop a system similar to what The Weather Channel utilizes in its forecast process; a system of well-developed computer programs meshed with subtle human intervention to create forecasts that are by and large the most accurate available today.
Pro: New Tools
Radar! Observations! Supercomputers! All things we desperately need in order to understand, predict, and prepare for the weather around us. The issue of more Doppler weather radars in near and dear to me, given the large number of gaps in low-level coverage around the United States. The beam gets higher off the ground the farther away it travels from the weather radar, so the beam is 10,000 feet off the ground within 80 or 90 miles of the radar site. This leaves some pretty big gaps in low-level coverage, which is crucial for determining hazards like tornadoes and damaging winds.
No restructuring means that, unless they magically come up with gobs of money, these are just fantasies as well. Onward...
Pro/Con: Severe Weather and Continuity of Operations
National Weather Service offices are notoriously stretched thin during major severe weather outbreaks, and that can be dangerous if meteorologists start missing things or they don’t get a warning out in time. These two cases are exceedingly rare, but one of the benefits of centralizing operations is that you would have many more eyes available to cover severe weather events. The threat of an office getting stretched to its max diminishes with centralization.
It’s not terribly uncommon for tornadic thunderstorms to threaten a National Weather Service office during a major severe weather outbreak. Several offices had to abandon ship and head for shelter during the string of outbreaks in 2011, delegating their duties to another office in an area not running itself ragged with severe weather coverage. This is known as continuity of operations, and it generally works pretty well when bad things are happening.
Say, for instance, that one of the six centralized regional offices set up shop on the campus of the University of Oklahoma in Norman, where the Storm Prediction Center and WFO for Oklahoma City are currently located.
Norman, along with its neighboring communities like Moore (you’ve heard of it, right?), are not in a fun part of the country when it comes to severe weather. They tend to see big tornadoes. Big, angry tornadoes. Big, angry tornadoes that don’t care that the National Weather Center is there. If a serious threat unfolds that requires the National Weather Center to take tornado precautions, they’d have to transfer all of their duties to another regional office. That’s a huge workload being pushed onto another office, especially if they, too, are seeing active weather in their area of responsibility.
While highly unlikely, if one of these six regional centers were to be rendered unusable due to a disaster like a storm or fire, it would have a much greater effect than if one of today’s 122 regional offices was destroyed by a disaster.
Continuity of operations would be something they’d have to strongly consider if the idea of consolidation comes up again in the future.
Pro/Con: Everlasting Communication Problems
The National Weather Service’s communication systems kinda suck; their internet and telephones have gone down with some regularity in recent years. These communication problems have actually caused significant issues in the past. Back in May 2014, the office in Albany, New York, was unable to transmit a tornado warning for the small town of Duanesburg until it was too late. By the time the warning surpassed the outage and made it to the public, a half-mile wide, EF-3 tornado had already torn through the town.
That’s not cool, and a telephone or internet outage would have much greater implications if it knocked out one of these six regional offices instead of an individual office that covers a much smaller portion of the country.
Hopefully they’ll be able to find and invest more money in these systems even though the potential savings will never be realized now that the bill is dead. The agency needs to invest in a more reliable system (with plenty of redundancies) so one snapped telephone cord doesn’t cripple their ability to push out lifesaving warnings one day.
Maybe One Day...
I’m disappointed that the senators killed the legislation before it had a chance to foster a wider debate about things the National Weather Service could do to improve its products beyond severe weather watches and warnings. Even though the bill is gone now, the potential benefits from even small changes to the organization are too great to let this issue die out without wider discussion.
These seemingly small issues have a significant impact on the agency’s effectiveness, especially when they begin to interfere with the communication of forecasts and hazards to the public. Going forward, the agency needs to confront issues with boundary lines, radar gaps, falling behind in supercomputing power, and things as basic as a reliable telephone and internet connection. Overhauling the way the agency goes about severe weather watches and warnings—which could, itself, solve the issue of boundaries if they go about it the right way—is a great step in the right direction. However, the scrapping of the initial legislation doesn’t give the agency a pass on having to take a good, hard look at itself beyond these important products.
The National Weather Service is by far one of the most important (if not the most important) federal agencies in existence, and it’s something in which we need to invest time, energy, money, and research to make better in every aspect of its operations. Hopefully that will happen sooner rather than later.
[Images: Senate Sergeant-at-Arms via AP, author, AP, Getty Images, NWS EDD, Gibson Ridge, NWS]