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Written by Kim Ogren, BT Contributor   
October 2018

If the Weather Service goes private, who can we trust?

IPix_GoingGreen_10-18magine you’ve received a memo from your boss stating that 250 of your co-workers are getting laid off. That’s the Trump administration’s proposal for NOAA’s National Weather Service for FY19, which begins October 1. Congress has yet to take up the matter, but when it does, positions primarily responsible for generating, analyzing, and delivering weather forecasts are on the chopping block.

Marshall Shepherd, a professor of geography and atmospheric sciences at the University of Georgia, writes in Forbes that these cuts are dangerous. They would harm our ability to make decisions on everything from transportation to oil and gas infrastructure investments, from agriculture and air traffic control to military and school bus deployments. If the National Weather Service forecasters go, who will we depend on?

The people who report the weather have always been rock stars to me. I graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in geography and took climatology, meteorology, and “physical hazards” courses. My professor wrote the book on El Niño. Really. It’s called El Niño in History: Storming through the Ages. César Caviedes was a passionate professor who took his students on wild rides. With a heavy German-Chilean-French accent, sweat dripping from his brow, and arms waving like a conductor’s, he described in detail atmospheric and oceanic systems that spanned the globe.

In the early 1980s, the Weather Channel (TWC) shone a spotlight on weather professionals as broadcast journalists. Its first major slogan was: “You need us for everything you do.”

I was a huge fan of TWC’s Dave Schwartz’s smarts, wit, and comedic timing. He reminded me of David Letterman, who famously got his own start as a TV weatherman. More recently, TWC’s Stephanie Abrams, with meteorology degrees from UF and FSU, has received praise for correcting -- during live hurricane coverage -- her colleagues’ tendency toward hyperbole.

Your favorite local TV weatherperson is likely the only person at the station with a science degree, and likely in meteorology. This journalist also reigns over coveted airtime -- the weather draws more viewers than any other newscast segment.

Weather reporters are deemed so influential that more than a decade ago, the National Environmental Education Foundation began training them how to extend their airtime by integrating environmental and climate information to improve viewers’ understanding.

Bryan Norcross, host of a new podcast produced by WPLG, catapulted local trusted weathermen from rock stars to superheroes during Hurricane Andrew in 1992. And NBC 6’s chief meteorologist, John Morales, whose list of academic and service accolades runs long, is active on Twitter, manages the only local live radar, and was named 2018’s “Best of in Arts and Entertainment by New Times.

Weather and climate are colliding in unpredictable ways. Until we understand exactly how, we’re calling these collisions “severe weather events.” And we’ll continue watching weather news, but not for its infotainment value. Instead, it’ll be a matter of full-blown economic and personal life or death.

Which leads me to this question: At what point have we asked enough of our TV weather reporters? Their skill and knowledge must include access to data, analysis, translation, narration, and agile storytelling. And it all begins with a high-functioning National Weather Service as a reliable source.

In October 2017, the National Weather Service Employees Organization released a statement warning that the agency is “for the first time in its history teetering on the brink of failure.” Reductions in staffing had left scientists stressed, overworked, and frustrated.

What happens to the transparency, integrity, passion, and focus on the public interest if the drivers of weather information become private? That’s a possibility and not the first time efforts have been launched to prevent the National Weather Service from competing with for-profit entities like AccuWeather. Just three months into his term, President Trump signed legislation that would, in part, encourage the private sector to provide weather analysis and consulting services for NOAA to purchase.

The December 2017 issue of Nature offers five priorities for weather research: Deliver science for service; seam together planet-wide weather models that connect land, air, and sea; improve infrastructure of organizations to increase user access to data; nurture a diverse workforce; and share ideas through new networks.

These priorities form a framework for addressing concerns raised by the proposed budget cuts, and Miami is uniquely positioned to take the lead on this effort. I call on those of you engaged in climate change to work with the Miami Foundation to apply for a Community Information Needs grant from the Knight Foundation. Start by convening Florida’s superhero meteorologists at the FIU campus. Invite Professor Shepherd, who’s a three-time FSU grad and who, according to his website, “redefines the intersection of academia, science, and societal relevance.” Who and where better than us and here, to launch this ground game around weather research and journalism?

 

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