The Shutdown Is Weakening Our Understaffed Weather Service

Salaried meteorologists at the National Weather Service aren’t getting paid, and this could have long-term implications for your weather forecasts.

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Jan 11 2019, 12:53pm

Since December 22, The US government has been shut down because President Trump has been demanding for Congress to allocate $5.7 billion of the new federal budget toward building a wall along the US-Mexico border. In the meantime, the paychecks of 800,000 federal workers have been halted, including more than 4,000 employees of the National Weather Service.

The shutdown exacerbates a long-term problem within the NWS: it’s badly understaffed. According to the most recent Government Accountability Office report about the NWS, 11 percent of positions within the agency were vacant as of 2016. Then, last year, the Trump administration cut the agency's budget an additional 8 percent and recommended cutting 355 jobs.

Although a number of NWS employees are continuing to work without pay, and forecasts are still being generated, the agency is operating at a limited capacity. All activities in at least four NWS offices—including the Phoenix, AZ office, Springfield, MO office, Tampa Bay regional office, and the Pacific northwest regional office—have been “canceled or postponed until further notice,” according to the NWS office websites.

We’re still getting weather forecasts because many meteorologists directly involved with creating weather forecasts are choosing to work without pay. However, NWS offices have been operating at at such limited capacity for weeks on end. Some meteorologists told Motherboard that even after the shutdown ends, the NWS could be weaker as a result of the shutdown.

Right now, it’s not that your weather forecasts are less accurate, but much fewer people are working to make them accurate than usual. Keith Seitter, executive director of the American Meteorological Society, told Motherboard that the NWS usually has a full-time staff purely dedicated to fact-checking billions of observations that are fed into computer models, which are used by meteorologists to create weather forecasts. Now, many of those people aren’t working.

“The general maintenance needs to be continuous to keep everything working optimally,” Seitter said. “So there’s a degradation of the models that impacts the services to some extent. I think an enormous amount of effort is being put to try and make sure that impact is as minimal as possible, but there’s no question that there’s still going to be impacts.”

However, widespread or tangible impacts on weather forecasting aren’t at a crisis level, according to other meteorologists.

James Spann, a weather forecaster for WBMA-LD in Alabama, told Motherboard that the Numerical Weather Predictions, or algorithms that he relies on to make forecasts, have not suddenly stopped generating outputs. Smilairly, Fred Carr, president of the AMS and professor of meteorology at the University of Oklahoma, told Motherboard that weather forecasts in the short-term are not less accurate, overall, as a result of the shutdown.

In an email to Motherboard, a NOAA spokesperson said that NWS forecasts are still operating at normal standards. “The majority of the National Weather Service staff continue to work to produce the quality weather forecast for which NWS is known, and the resources they need to perform essential operations are being provided,” the spokesperson said.

In other words, people are working overtime to make sure your weather forecasts haven’t been complete nonsense, and that we aren’t caught off guard by a weather emergency. The NWS website clarifies that “critical forecast, watch, and warning information” will continue to be provided during the shutdown.

The real harm done to the NWS from the government shutdown, Spann told Motherboard, could be in the long-term.

“The annual American Meteorological Society (AMS) meeting is going on this week in Phoenix, and there are no NWS/NOAA/Federal employees there,” Spann said in an email, “This means attendance is about 25-30 percent down from what is usually expected, and many papers/research projects were not shared.”

Spann also said that long-term work to improve NWS modeling has been halted, meaning that heavy-lifting efforts to improve our weather forecasts are currently not happening. Carr also told Motherboard that since research and development at the NWS has been halted, so has the introduction of a new algorithmic model designed to improve US forecasts.

“The [National] Weather Service was going to implement a new global model at the end of January—those two models are sure to improve the forecast,” Carr said. “And unfortunately this probably will not be implemented at the end of January if the shutdown continues. Because the last tests and evaluations of the model is not going on as it should be right now. So they’ll probably have to restart the final testing of the model after the shutdown ends.”

We often take NWS labor for granted: it provides a baseline of knowledge about the weather that helps power our transportation systems and airlines, as well as keep workers like construction workers and farmers safe.

And even if you don’t check the daily forecast on weather.gov, it’s important to note that private weather companies wouldn’t be possible without NWS data. County and town-specific forecasts from companies like Weather.com/Weather Underground (which is used to inform the native iOS Weather app), Accuweather, and Weatherbug rely on hundreds of hours of NWS labor. (By the way, those apps harvest and share your location data and you should probably think twice about having them on your phone.)

In essence, the basic, operating level of knowledge that you have about the weather wouldn’t be possible without the labor of NWS meteorologists, and now, many of them are not working, or working without pay.

“No doubt the worst part is knowing the stress NWS employees are feeling; working on an ‘IOU’ basis,” Carr told Motherboard. “They all have bills to pay like everyone else.”