3 October 2015

We Owe Europe A Lot Of Money For Letting Us See Their Weather Model

Posted by Dan Satterfield

..and politicians.

..and politicians.

Let’s assume that the European Center for Medium Range Forecasting did not exist, or perhaps that it does, but their ECMWF weather model was top- secret, and no one outside of their office was allowed to see it. That’s a real nightmare scenario because if it were not for the Euro model, we would have likely seen major evacuations, or they would have been underway, when the U.S. models finally got it right. This could have cost millions of dollars, and caused a million people to leave home and spend hundreds of dollars of their own money to escape a storm that was not headed in their direction.

Fortunately, we CAN see the Euro model, and we forecasters knew it was very possibly right, even when it was almost the only model not predicting landfall, so the disruption of costly evacuations wasn’t necessary in the end. We actually do pay the ECMWF for the privilege of getting the complete model output, and between you and me (and the mice in Westminster Abbey), they should raise the price they charge us. Just like Sandy, the euro model seems to have well outperformed most of the U.S. and Canadian weather models. Three years ago this month, the Euro correctly forecasted Sandy would impact us, while this time it consistently said Joaquin would stay out to sea, while models run in America and Canada gave landfalls from Boston to Savannah!

Do not think for a second that I’m putting the blame on NOAA, or the NHC because they did a fabulous job and continue to do so.

 The blame lies squarely with the Congress. In a few weeks, a new supercomputer will go online at NOAA, and next year we’ll get a new GOES weather satellite. They both will be nearly as good as what Japan and Europe have had for sometime, and you can thank Hurricane Sandy for that. That new supercomputer is a direct result of the embarrassment over the poor performance of U.S. models during Sandy. Almost every TV meteorologist has picked up the phone and heard something along the lines of “Why don’t you use “our” models to forecast with? (Some just start by calling us commies-no, really!) and my reply is always the same: “Do you want the correct forecast or a wrong one”. Based on my own experience, about one out of ten prefer the more patriotically correct, but wrong one.

The severe federal budget cuts have hurt NOAA’s ability to make forecasts and provide warnings, and an event like this proves just how much money and lives those warnings save. Europe has funded their weather enterprises well, while here in America, our funding for science has led to a situation similar to our second world roads and airports. We are starting to catch up, but Europe is not standing still, and has major upgrades planned for their weather model, along with an even better weather satellite. We’ll improve, but frankly I see no real signs of catching up. NOAA needs more people, and better funding, for research and remote sensing.


What has led us to this situation?

I’ve heard the jokes about NOAA promising Congress not to run any weather or climate models more than ten days into the future, if they would upgrade the NOAA supercomputer, and I can only speculate that this might have been a factor. That may sound ridiculous, but based on what they have publicly stated, a majority of the Congress has the science literacy of a 3rd grader! Dr. Phil Plait over at Bad Astronomy has apparently had enough of this group of science birthers, and said so last week rather bluntly.

From Phil Plait’s post:

Screen Shot 2015-10-03 at 2.03.05 AM

That’s just scary, and I think Phil Plait was too kind. If there were a million folks in shelters and hotels, waving at Joaquin as it passed by well out to sea this weekend, they’d be blaming forecasters like me, but the real blame falls on their own shoulders.

The majority of them got exactly what they voted for.

There is some good news. Alabama is thinking about no longer slapping stickers on all their Biology books stating THIS IS ONLY ONE POSSIBLE THEORY. I’ll bet a certain candidate for President is not going to like that! If you attended a science meeting in 1985 the split between Republicans and Democrats was not much different than the rest of society. These days you sometimes hear the following joke at science meetings: “The latest data shows 6% of scientists identify as Republican, and science has no explanation for why that percentage is so HIGH.”

Yes, go ahead and laugh (Europe is, at us!), but this is not good for the country. 

Somebody needed to talk some sense, and a hat tip to Dr. Plait for doing so.