The US government shutdown is preventing scientists from improving forecasts for severe weather and navigational models

  • The US government shutdown, now in its 34th day, has left some NOAA staff in limbo.
  • Day-to-day weather forecasting is not affected, but the shutdown could impede long-term improvements to the National Weather Service’s forecasting system, as well as scientists’ ability to model severe storms, hurricanes, and tornadoes.
  • The US already lags behind Europe in its weather-prediction capabilities, and the shutdown is putting us further behind.
  • Plus, the magnetic North Pole is shifting about 30 miles per year, but the shutdown is keeping NOAA scientists from updating the World Magnetic Model, which helps everything from Google Maps to the US Department of Defence navigate.

The longest government shutdown in US history has reached its 34th day.

While volunteers fight trash pile-ups in national parks, airports shut down terminals for lack of TSA agents, and food-safety inspections take a hit, employees at the National Weather Service (NWS) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have dutifully continued to provide up-to-date weather forecasts and storm warnings.

“Much of NOAA National Weather Service operations are in excepted status and therefore remain in place to provide forecasts and warnings to protect lives and property,” an agency spokesperson said in a statement to Business Insider.

To assuage any concerns about the shutdown’s impact on day-to-day weather forecasting, NOAA’s deputy administrator Neil Jacobs published an op-ed in the Post and Courier on January 11 reassuring Americans about the accuracy of the government’s predictions.

“During the recent partial lapse in appropriations, the National Weather Service has continued to perform this critical function with no degradation in forecast skill or model performance,” he wrote.

But experts say the shutdown will hamper scientists’ ability to improve forecasting in the long term. It also means that NOAA is unable to update a crucial model that is the foundation for almost all navigation systems, according to the Washington Post.

Why we need an accurate World Magnetic Model

Earth’s magnetic North Pole and geographic North Pole aren’t the same thing, and they aren’t in the same place. The magnetic North Pole, in fact, moves. It has shifted north by an average of about 30 miles per year since 1900, when it was located in northeastern Canada.

Scientific models of the magnetic North Pole (as well as of the entire planet’s magnetic field) underpin almost all modern navigation, including Google Maps and military navigation systems.

But due to the shutdown, NOAA employees that oversee the World Magnetic Model (WMM) can’t come to work. So with every day that passes, the model gets a little more inaccurate, according to the Washington Post. That means our GPS and military navigation systems do, too.

The next major update to the WMM was scheduled for 2020, but the magnetic North Pole had other plans. In 2018, it crossed the International Date Line and started moving faster.

The more the pole moves, the more it magnifies errors in the magnetic model. Those errors have been compounding so rapidly that scientists decided to start updating the model earlier than planned.

That work was supposed to begin January 15, but because of the shutdown, NOAA employees that oversee the model can’t come to work. The update has been pushed back two weeks, but if the government is still closed at the end of January, chances are it will be delayed again.

Europe is pulling ahead

The WMM isn’t the only model that has an update on hold.

Chris Nowotarski, assistant professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University, told Business Insider that improvements to some weather models – which allow meteorologists to make forecast predictions based on real-time observations – are on hold, too.

“The shutdown halts any progress we can make in terms of weather models,” he said.

This hurts our chances of saving lives during future storms. It also puts the US further behind in a global race with Europe for forecasting dominance.

Atmospheric scientists and meteorologists tend to agree about one thing: Europe is better than the US (and arguably the rest of the world) at predicting weather.

The NWS has been falling behind the European Centre for Medium Range- Weather Forecasting for some time. A key example was Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Whereas the US’ Global Forecasting System predicted that Sandy would dissipate over the Atlantic, the European model was the only one that showed the storm heading toward the East Coast.

Improving US forecasting is more than just a matter of prestige, Antonio Busalacchi, president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, told Business Insider.

“When it comes down to it, developing world-class models means protecting life and property and national security,” he said. “We don’t want to be second in any of this … we want to be first.”

Weather models can improve in three ways. First, the equations that model pressure systems in the atmosphere can get more accurate. Second, models can better incorporate real-time weather data. And third, scientists can take weather measurements from more points around the globe. Europe is far ahead on this last one: it takes data from 904 million prediction points and has 10 times more computing power than the US does to crunch those numbers.

To catch up, the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act, which President Trump signed into law in 2017, charges NOAA with prioritising weather research to improve data, modelling, forecasts, and warnings.

But with the shutdown, the research required to accomplish those goals is paused.

“There’s been all this money earmarked towards this effort, but during the shutdown, much of the people at like, the Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, are sidelined,” Nowotarski said.

Fred Carr, professor emeritus at the University of Oklahoma School of Meteorology, put it simply: “The longer the shutdown, the more it will hurt us.”

R&D is ‘dead in the water’

Nicholas Bond, a research scientist at the University of Washington with ties to NOAA, told Business Insider that the shutdown is affecting weather research in several other key ways.

“There are changes that happen in the forecasting model year to year,” he said, “but you need people to make those changes and improvements, like scientists and some contractors. Both groups are kind of dead in the water.”

One key example: The US’ Global Forecasting System is slated to get a significant upgrade – known as FV3 – which will be the system’s most significant boost since 1980.

In Jacobs’ recent op-ed, the NOAA deputy administrator said, “development work on implementing this upgrade will continue following the end of the partial lapse in funding.” In other words: it’s held up by the shutdown.

The new code for FV3 was supposed to be in by the end of this month, Carr said, but “since the shutdown, final testing on that has been stopped and the new model implementation has probably been delayed.”

Such delays prevent climate scientists from “making the same sort of strides forward that we otherwise would,” Bond said. “This kind of knocks us off our game.”

What’s more, American scientists and meteorologists are seeing in their opportunities for collaboration stymied. Take, for example, the annual American Meteorological Society Conference – the world’s largest gathering for the weather and climate community – which was held January 6-10.

“Basically the feds couldn’t go,” Bond said. “A substantial fraction of the attendees had to miss out on that chance to talk with colleagues.” That’s work that could have led to forecasting improvements.

Inside Climate News reported that the EPA even warned employees that if they fund their own travel to conferences like that during the shutdown, they can’t represent themselves as federal employees, moderate or participate in panels, or present data.

Missing the tornado season

Predicting the nature of severe storms in the future could also be tougher because of this shutdown.

NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory studies tornadoes, flash floods, lightning, damaging winds, hail, and winter weather. It’s out of commission right now, as is its Hazardous Weather Testbed, which acts as the primary lab for improving the US’ hazardous weather forecasting.

“The ramifications for a prolonged shutdown could include losing a year in terms of advancing our abilities for severe-storm prediction,” Nowotarski said. “Even though weather events aren’t occurring right now, the off-season is when we make all our advancements for the actual season.”

Plus, Nowotarski added, winter is tornado season in the southeastern US. NOAA’s tornado-research program, known as VORTEX-Southeastern, is also down right now, so it isn’t collecting information that could be used later to improve models.

Research into hurricane forecasting is taking a hit, too. Many scientists at NOAA’s National Hurricane Center in Miami are required to work without pay during the shutdown. But Eric Blake, a union representative at the center, told Inside Climate News that their work is limited “to only essential lifesaving activities, which means current weather.'”

“This is the time of year that the center’s scientists work on improving their forecasting models,” Blake added.”We can’t do any research and development for the next hurricane season.”

NOAA employees also use the hurricane off-season to update their website, conduct preparedness trainings with state emergency managers, and do outreach to the public. A shutdown means none of that is happening, either.

“If we’re still shut down in February and March, that will really impair the upcoming season,” Busalacchi said. “As it stands, NOAA personnel aren’t able to go into the field and prepare vulnerable communities for hurricane season.”

Demoralising forecast

To Carr, the real problem with the shutdown is that the “dedicated people in NOAA are not getting paid.”

Bond said he’s lucky to still be getting a paycheck through the University of Washington, but he’s normally based in a NOAA laboratory. “I can’t use my primary office and the tools that I have there,” he said. “My research is being hampered right now.”

When it comes to weather forecasts in the future, the difference this lost research time could have made will be hard to quantify.

“It hasn’t affected you, probably – forecasting models are running more or less as they would have,” Nowotarski said. “But the impact comes in May, or during the next tornado season, when the forecast might not be as good as it could be because we haven’t been able to test new products properly and incorporate them into our forecasting.”

On the ground, we’ll never know what we’re missing.

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