Meteorologists found themselves at the center of a political storm this month, and some are worried that it could have long term consequences for their field.
When federal weather forecasters contradicted a President Trump tweet about the track of Hurricane Dorian, they faced blowback from a bevy of political offices, ranging from an unsigned statement from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to (reportedly) the secretary of commerce.
The situation has some meteorologists concerned. They suggest that if meteorological forecasts become politicized, some people may tune them out — with life-threatening consequences.
Politicizing a clear blue sky
It all started with Trump's claim that Hurricane Dorian would affect Alabama.
In addition to Florida - South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated. Looking like one of the largest hurricanes ever. Already category 5. BE CAREFUL! GOD BLESS EVERYONE!September 1, 2019
After Alabama residents called to ask about the president's warning, the National Weather Service (NWS) office in Birmingham, Alabama, publicly contradicted him.
"Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian. We repeat, no impacts from Hurricane #Dorian will be felt across Alabama. The system will remain too far east," the office wrote in a tweet.
Trump has doubled-down on his incorrect tweet repeatedly, at one point presenting reporters with an out-of-date weather map, altered with a sharpie such that its probability cone seemed to include Alabama. Then, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), of which the NWS is a part, released an unsigned statement chastising the Birmingham office.
"The Birmingham National Weather Service's Sunday morning tweet spoke in absolute terms that were inconsistent with probabilities from the best forecast products available at the time," the NOAA statement said.
NOAA's statement pointed to earlier wind-speed-probability maps that sometimes showed a 5% to 10% chance of tropical-storm-force winds in the far southeastern corner of the state, and in a couple instances showed a 10% to 20% chance of tropical-storm-force winds reaching some parts of Alabama.
Things escalated, and the The New York Times even reported that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees NOAA, threatened firings at the agency over the contradiction. (NOAA chief Neil Jacobs, a political appointee, later praised the NWS meteorologists even as he defended Trump's actions.) CNN reported that staff were warned that they "should not provide any opinion about the national level posts."
The dangers here are bigger than the careers of the individuals involved, meteorologists said. Ryan Maue, a private meteorologist, wrote that the situation was "nauseating" because it "obfuscates the great work being done" by hurricane forecasters.
The Tweet should have been corrected, adjusted or deleted to assure folks in Alabama that Dorian was out of range.Nope. Trump is still going -- and a major hurricane is about to make landfall in the Carolinas.This is nauseating b/c it obfuscates the great work being done.September 5, 2019
Steve Bowen, also a private meteorologist, wrote in response to the NOAA statement, "Politicizing @NOAA is a disgrace. I feel for the men and women at these agencies who just want to do their job without bureaucratic interference."
Marshall Shepherd, director of the atmospheric sciences program at the University of Georgia and a former president of the American Meteorological Society, said that he worries about a storm forecast getting wrapped up in a political dispute.
"There's already this adversarial or somewhat mocking, partly serious notion that meteorologists are wrong all the time, when we're actually right most of the time," Shepherd told Live Science, "then when you have a situation in which a forecast becomes somehow politicized you are completely undermining potentially life-saving information that might be delivered by the National Weather Service or National Hurricane Center."
It's important that people take the NWS seriously when it says a dangerous storm is coming — and when it reassures people that the storm isn't coming, Shepherd said. In fact, the NWS office sent the tweet in response to calls from worried Alabamans, according to NWS director Louis Uccellini, who defended his forecasters in a talk at the annual meeting of the National Weather Association. (He also said the forecasters didn't know Trump was the source of the rumors they were correcting.)
"You were building toward a panic in the state of Alabama. So it was imperative that meteorologists in Birmingham do what they did…. It was very important to prevent mass runs on grocery stores, buying up fuel, doing the things that they should do if it were coming."
So the office was right to dispel those fears, Shepherd said.
NOAA's unsigned statement, meanwhile, was a problem, he added.
"It really undermined the NWS office in Birmingham's mission to protect life and property in the moment, because they did what they should have done and should do the next time if that happens," he said.
Trump's initial, incorrect tweet, he said, was part of a bigger problem for meteorology: Forecasts are difficult to explain to the general public. The earlier maps Trump tweeted, as well as a "spaghetti plot" of storm paths that different weather models had created that he later shared, do seem at first glance to show a path headed toward Alabama. In reality, neither predicts the storm barreling across Alabama — but to a layperson, that's not obvious.
"Me as a meteorologist, I know that there are certain lines that are not credible. But to someone who sees a line going through Alabama, they might not know that that's the least credible model in that ensemble of lines," he said. "Without the proper context, I can see how someone not trained as a meteorologist would interpret that data incorrectly."
The good news is that despite all the hubbub, it's unlikely that most people will stop listening to hurricane forecasts just because one of them made the president mad, Shepherd said.
"I think for certain people with certain ideologies that are already in place it will [undermine trust]," he said. "There are these ideological tendencies that are being activated where people mistrust science and evidence and government agencies. But I think most of the public still understands the value of science."
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Originally published on Live Science.