Rebuilding the Nation…and the National Weather Service

Back in the day, the Redskins had a quarterback by the name of Joe Theisman. He used to tell this story on himself.

I noticed, he said, that our star running back John Riggins didn’t always run to daylight after I’d give him the ball. Sometimes he’d just run smack into the oncoming lineman or linebacker, instead of cutting right or left.

At practice, I brought this to John’s attention.

John had a ball in his hand. He slammed it into my gut and said, “Here. You try it.”

Although dedicated employees at the National Weather Service and its parent organization NOAA have helped the country navigate 2011’s tornadoes and flood and 2012’s heat and drought, Hurricane Sandy, and much more…both organizations have come under some criticism in recent days.

This reminds me of the seventeen years when I was an adjoint faculty member at the University of Colorado while a NOAA researcher in Boulder. Working with and advising graduate students in those days taught me something important.

Whenever I would see a graduate student struggling with a research problem, it raised the question: could it be that he or she was given to laziness and muddled thinking? Or could it be that the problem was much tougher than I’d realized? The reality? Almost always the latter. Yet each time, I’d have to go through the whole sorry thought process again and learn the moral one more time.

This life lesson came up again, in a different form, when I moved from Boulder to Washington, DC, in 1987. I’d worked for some really great bosses in Boulder. They combined vision with integrity. But they turned out to be wrong about one thing. From that Colorado remove, they used to doubt the intellect, veracity, and the intentions of their Washington counterparts at every level of government.

A year or two…and all the experience since, have convinced me…my Boulder bosses needed to think a bit more like ecologists. When ecologists enter the jungle, they don’t look at the Tamarin, the poison tree toad, and the jaguar and conclude two of the three of you must be wrong. Rather they ask a different question: what is it about the jungle ecosystem that makes each of you ideally suited for it? Why are your actions, accomplishments (and even your limitations) totally appropriate? In the same way, I found (belatedly, because I was operating with my Boulder bias) when I moved to DC that the people there were as bright as I was (more, actually), as honest (more, actually), and as high-minded (more, actually). It was more accurate to ask: what about conditions in Washington made their behavior intelligent and honorable?

Sobering.

Surveying the present scene, then, we can take a range of postures. At one end of the spectrum, when we see the National Weather Service lacking computing resources, when we see leadership at NWS and NOAA struggling to keep things afloat, when we sense the organization is less than perfect, that there’s waste here and duplication there, when someone else in the world has better NWP scores (it’s as if our son was only the silver medalist in the Olympics) the observing system deficient…when we see that there’s a big gap between an aspirational goal of a weather-ready-nation and the 3000 vulnerable counties that make up our nation…we might be tempted to criticize. [An aside: somehow, slamming the military doesn’t feel much different from an ethnic or gender stereotype to me.]

And sure enough, there’s always room for improvement. But at the other end of the spectrum, we might ask two questions:

-          What foundation have the NWS and NOAA built that holds promise for future success?

-          How might the nation, some 300,000,000 strong, better support the NWS 5000 as they play the hand we’ve dealt them?

The NWS/NOAA foundation. It may be that the most important accomplishment of today’s NWS is its shift in emphasis from a myopic focus on forecast performance to the larger, end-use goal of a safer, more productive America. By making Weather-Ready Nation the goal as opposed to forecast skill scores, they have reminded themselves and the nation they serve that the goal is to transform weather hazards into mere extremes. One great American success story here? Ski resorts. The same mountains and snows that formed the biggest peril to Americans in the 1849 Gold Rush have become a tourist destination. Today the Rocky Mountains come to life when it snows rather than shut down.

Note that improved forecasts play only a small role in this success. The difference maker is a far-broader community-level and state-level effort to build resilience. Wide, well-marked, frequently plowed roads. Roofs that can support a heavy snow load. An electrical grid and communications that can withstand the elements. Then the forecast can play its best role; an invitation to join the fun.  And that’s the whole point. The goal is not to aggrandize weather services, to make pinpoint weather forecasts essential to a desperate strategy of evacuating or hunkering down. The goal is to use weather and climate information to build economic productivity, safety, and quality of life.

We have a long way to go to achieve this goal. But it’s the right one.

A second accomplishment? The recent criticism notwithstanding, an improved dialog between the NWS and private-sector weather service providers. To fully appreciate this achievement requires an understanding that this improved dialog hasn’t occurred in a stable time, but rather in a tumultuous one, where the impacts of the weather on society have grown in stature and complexity, and where the potential for strain and friction among the parties has been growing exponentially.

A third accomplishment? Nailing a few very visible forecasts. Whether we’re talking of Hurricane Katrina or Sandy, last summer’s derecho along the Middle Atlantic states, or river forecasts in the spring of 2011, the result has been a greater, more energized and effective response at national-, state-, and local levels. People now swing into action based on a forecast. They no longer wait until the weather crisis is underway.

These are successes we can build on. There’s much more that could be said here. Readers could easily come up with more salient, credible lists. Please do so!

But for now let’s move on to the second issue:

How might the Nation better support its NWS? There are 300,000,000 of us. Only 5000 of them. Instead of putting all of the problems we’ve generated on their backs, maybe we could point a finger of blame at ourselves.

This post started with a football analogy. Here’s another one. Many times the game at college or professional level comes down to a final field goal attempt. Fans (I’m one!) are tempted to blame the kicker should things go awry. By contrast, coaches and teams are reluctant to do so. They know how cold and blustery it was out there. They know the playing surface was slick and footing marginal. They’re painfully aware that misplays by the offense, defense, and special teams for the first 59 minutes made this last-second, desperation try necessary. In that final snap, hold, and kick, a lot can go wrong.

In this self-examination, we can go back to the financial-sector crisis of 2008, which took trillions of dollars off the table globally and nationally…probably something like $10T in the United States alone (just look at that national debt figure). It’s unsurprising that weather satellites and computers and much more were part of the collateral damage from that disaster.

We can also go back to decades of land-use and building-code decisions that month after month between extreme events put thousands upon thousands of us at greater weather risk, magnifying the burden we’re putting on weather forecasters, public and private.

We can go back to a predilection we all share for fixing the blame in preference to fixing the problem, which has turned every decision and every issue into a polarized debate.

To deal with these issues we might adopt the practice of our numerical weather prediction community, which breaks the macro-problem up into millions of cells, and then make calculations in each of those cells. The analogy here?

We break up our national (weather) problems into 300,005,000 cells. In each of those cells we concentrate on two things:

- making the best-possible use of our own cell (fixing what’s wrong…we all can do better…but more importantly, focusing on our opportunities for positive contributions and doing our best with those);

- encouraging those in the neighboring cells.

In this life, constructive criticism such as we’ve seen is always valuable. But let’s balance it with encouragement. Everyone …critics and players alike …keep up the good work!

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5 Responses to Rebuilding the Nation…and the National Weather Service

  1. James Henderson says:

    Hi Bill
    I agree with the essence of your post. However, having said that I wonder if there is too much Pollyanna in it. Are you implying that there is no leadership crisis in the NOAA/NWS management structure and that Congress has not failed in its fiduciary responsibility to adequately ensure proper funding. Are you implying that the crisis in the weather satellite production is overstated. I agree that we have lots of items we can be proud of and maybe things aren’t as bad as Cliff Mass has stated, but I don’t agree they are as rosy as you seem to imply they are.
    Jim henderson

  2. A great comment, Jim, thanks.

    I’m not sure that I suggested the picture was at all rosy. I know I didn’t use the precise word “rosy.” I guess what I’m suggesting is that we emphasize where we (all of us, together) go from here as opposed to chiding a small group of people for “getting us into this predicament.”

  3. As someone who actually on the front lines of national-scale forecasting on a daily basis, and who is in the union he portrayed (unfavorably), I can tell you nonetheless that most of what Cliff noted as problems is rooted deeply in reality. The facts he provided are true. The problems he noted are real.

    For those of us who have studied critical writing and debate, Cliff’s post followed the gold standard for critique: elucidate the issues (positives and negatives), state reasons with factual basis, and offer clear solutions to the problems. What more can you ask? Portraying only the positives, as Jim Henderson alluded with his “Pollyanna” comment, doesn’t do justice to the discussion.

    We cannot improve if we don’t admit and elucidate the flaws, in addition to supporting and highlighting what’s going right. There is always room for improvement. I don’t agree with all of Cliff’s solutions, but that’s not the point. At least he offered some.

    What are your clear, practical and concisely stated suggestions for improving the troubles of the NWS?

    That’s probably an entire BLOG entry unto itself, but I’d love to see your thoughts on that.

  4. Michael Cunningham says:

    Good post, good comments. And if it’s true that those in Washington are brighter, more honest and higher-minded than you, Bill, then the US ought to pull though OK.

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