Sunday, February 16, 2020

A Way Forward For the National Weather Service

While I have great admiration for the National Weather Service, the agency is dealing with serious issues with few signs of resolution. Dr. Cliff Mass published an incisive column about one of its issues, specifically, how it is falling farther and farther behind in atmospheric modeling.

But, while weather modeling is vital, it is hardly the only serious issue with which the NWS is struggling.
  • It's weather radars were designed in the 1980's and installed in the early to middle 1990's. While they have been upgraded several times, they will not last forever. There is no real plan for their replacement. The proposals to use phased-array radar will, when it comes to tornado detection, be a step backward due to its poor resolution. 
  • It has been evident for more than twenty years that gap-filler radars are needed, at least 20 in number. The NWS has done little or nothing to acquire and install them. 
  • The promised storm warning accuracy increases from various technologies (to cite one example, here) do not appear to have panned out. In fact, tornado warning accuracy has regressed and a new version has significant issues
  • The NWS has been dragging its feat on acquiring new types of data that are essential if we are to improve storm forecasting. 
  • Instead of fixing these issues and focusing on its core mission of storm warnings and forecasts, the NWS is 'reorganizing' itself to focus on decision support services, which -- in some cases -- is corporate welfare. 
I could go on but you get the idea. I have given a great deal of thought to the future of the National Weather Service.

It is time to face facts: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the parent agency of the National Weather Service, is failing in its management of public-sector weather in our nation. The NWS lacks a genuine vision for becoming the world's best public meteorological agency.

There seems to be no appetite in Washington to get to the root of the problem. The "ocean" side of NOAA and its constituency has far more clout than the atmosphere/weather side, even in this era of global warming concern. The first administrator of NOAA (1970-74) is the only administrator with a meteorological background in the half-century of the agency's history. The recent nominee of the Trump Administration failed because he had a weather background rather than one in fisheries or ocean enterprise.

Congress, in a rare bi-partisan manner, is more than willing to help but is not getting the guidance it needs from the agency and I doubt it will ever get that guidance because of the NWS being NOAA's figurative stepchild.

The current situation will never lead to the National Weather Service being first-in-class. So, I offer this unsolicited advice to both the Trump Administration and Congress.

The U.S. needs to do two things:

1. Split off the NWS from NOAA into an independent agency. It is time to concede NOAA, which was a good idea, needs a divorce.

2. As a Reagan conservative, I hate proposing more government. But, we desperately need a National Disaster Review Board (NDRB). Details of this proposal are here and here. The NLRB would also be tasked with verifying NWS forecasts and, especially, storm warnings. The people issuing the warnings should not be the people doing quality control evaluations.

There is a much better chance of the independent NWS striving to be best in class with the necessary tools (better models, gap-filler radars, etc.) and other essentials as an independent agency. If it does not, the NDRB will be holding its heat to the fire as the NTSB does with aviation and transportation.

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