Hurricane, weather forecasting made tough by shutdown
Though hurricane season runs from June through November, it is during the “off-season” when forecasters and researchers refine and improve their forecasting models, methods and techniques, allowing forecasters to enhance the accuracy of storm predictions.
With the partial government shutdown in its third week, and no end in sight, much of the research and development the National Hurricane Center relies on to improve hurricane forecasts is in jeopardy, along with badly needed upgrades to the main American weather model.
“It’s a tight schedule,” Eric Blake, a hurricane specialist with the National Hurricane Center (NHC) told CNN, “we try to fit in as many improvements as possible before the next hurricane season.”
While there is no good time for a government shutdown to bring the work of so many federal workers to a halt, according to Blake, “it is much worse for this to happen during the off-season.” Blake is the NHC’s Union Steward to the National Weather Service’s Employee Organization and spoke to CNN on its behalf.
During the hurricane season, the forecasters, which are working during the shutdown, would be doing their mission-critical work forecasting active storms in the Atlantic and Eastern Pacific Oceans. Because of this, research and development is frozen during the hurricane season.
From December through early May, however, the center’s forecasters work with researchers and scientists at other governmental agencies to tweak and upgrade the models that are used to project the storms — and many of these workers are currently furloughed.
One of these agencies is the Environmental Modeling Center (EMC), which, like the NHC, is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Center for Environmental Prediction (NCEP).
The EMC develops and improves weather and climate predictions through numerical models, and right now should be working with Blake and other hurricane forecasters to make adjustments to the models based upon new research and lessons learned from the previous hurricane season.
And considering the forecast challenges presented by Hurricane Florence and Hurricane Michael last year, these months are critical to improving the forecast models and implementing new research and techniques.
But of the 200 people that work on these and other NOAA forecast models at the EMC, and their various government contractors, only one of them is currently working through the shutdown. The other 199 are deemed “non-critical” and are furloughed, unable to access their computers to even check on the progress of their models until the government shutdown ends.
According to Suru Saha, one of the furloughed computer modelers at the EMC, the longer the shutdown goes on, the less prepared we will be when the next hurricane season begins.
“This is lost time that cannot be made up,” Saha told CNN. Saha also serves as the center’s union steward to the NWS Employee Organization. “It’s gone and it will effect future operations.”
But it isn’t just hurricane model upgrades that are being neglected during the partial government shutdown.