Controversy Growing At NOAA

Good afternoon everyone. Well, just as the hurricane season is about to begin, NOAA appears to be in more and more disarray. Recently, I had posted an entry to the blog concerning financial problems at the National Hurricane Center that have developed over recent years as a result of inflation and budget cuts. The financial situation has become so dire at the hurricane center that a key satellite called QuickSCAT may not be operational since it is in desperate need of repair.

Well, by following the news articles over the past several weeks, I read several that were tied to this issue of funding for the NHC. The first article appeared back on May 3rd in the Naples News out of Southwest Florida. It basically indicated that the National Hurricane Center Director, Bill Proenza stated that without the critical QuickSCAT satellite, hurricane forecast track for this year’s set of storms could be off by 16 percent. Forecasting the hurricane’s track is a very important, and the most accurate piece of information the tropical meteorologist has at this time. Predictions of hurricane intensity are not as reliable since there is still much to learn about what goes on inside these monster storms although new discoveries have been made recently that may help improve future forecasts of storm strength.

A little less than two weeks later, Congress became concerned about the issue of the predicament of the QuickSCAT Satellite. On May 13th, in an article reported from United Press International, the House Energy and Environment Subcommittee led by Texas Congressman, Nick Lampson, a Democrat from the 22nd district of the Lone Star State, called on top officials from both NOAA and NASA to get together and find an alternative way to get the critical data that the QuickSCAT satellite produces in case the tool does actually fail. Lampson actually wrote a letter to both the administrator of NASA, Dr. Michael Griffin, and NOAA undersecretary, Vice Admiral Conrad Lautenbacher. According to the article, a joint statement by the committee stated that, “”The QuikSCAT satellite, which tracks wind data at the ocean surface, is a NASA research mission which is producing data that NOAA finds valuable for improving predictions on the movement of hurricanes and the point of landfall.” The moral of the story here is that the two agencies, NASA and NOAA need to work together on issues of climate and weather. Both agencies have been working in isolation from one another, and going down parallel paths on important research.

It didn’t stop there as the heat ratcheted up another notch this past week as Proenza, who replaced Max Mayfield as the new director of the NHC in January, went on the war path by attacking NOAA for misusing money budgeted to the agency by allocating it for such things as “image building campaigns” at the same time “frontline forecasters wrestle with budget shortfalls” according to a story published in the San Diego Union-Tribune on May 17, 2007. Proenza detailed on how NOAA is spending $4 million to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the organization, and how that “is part of a broader campaign to publicize NOAA and its leaders.” The new NHC director and other critics also charge that this marketing effort is also undermining the two most important facets of the organization, the National Weather Service, and the NHC. In the wake of these criticisms, NOAA announced the resignation of two high ranking officials in the organization on May 19th. According to an article on Yahoo, and courtesy of the Associated Press, the head of the National Weather Service, and his deputy announced that they will retire in June 2007. NWS Director, David Johnson, and his deputy John Jones, made their intentions known in an internal memo. However, there was no mention of the criticisms brought up by Proenza, or any indication that the resignations were in any way related to the controversy.

I have to say that I have learned a great deal about what has been going on at NOAA over the past month thanks to these articles. Not only has the NHC been hamstrung by lack of money in the federal budget, but the money they are supposed to get is being squandered on public relations campaigns. It’s nice to see Bill Proenza going to battle for his team, and that will benefit all coastal residents from Maine to Texas as well as the Caribbean in the long run.