Whither Weather

Ken AshfordDisasters, Trump & Administration, WeatherLeave a Comment

Last week, I largely avoided the controversy about Trump and Hurricane Dorian, mostly because it was such a small thing that I didn’t believe it would turn into a big thing. But that, of course, is why the Hurricane Dorian controversy — or “Sharpiegate” — is actually relevant: it shows the chaotic and psychotic nature of Trump, who was unwilling to let a small thing go, and just could NOT admit he was wrong.

So let’s recap:

This all began on Sunday when the president tweeted a warning about Hurricane Dorian and said that in addition to Florida, “South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated by the storm.”

Birgmingham’s NWS office responded to a flurry of public phone calls and tweets, seeking to calm fears among the community by issuing an emphatic statement saying that Alabama wasn’t at risk from Dorian. Trump was wrong about Alabama, and the Birmingham National Weather Service quickly corrected him.

It all could have ended there, but of course it didn’t.

On Wednesday, weather reporters and other experts noticed that it looked like someone had drawn an extra little bubble onto a map of the path of a storm in a video of Trump talking about it. People started to wonder whether Trump or someone else had used a Sharpie pen — which the president is known to use — to doctor the map so it looked like he had been right. #SharpieGate was born.

We still don’t know who doctored the map, or if it was, indeed, doctored. The ordeal, in part, highlights the president’s penchant for lying and his refusal to let even the most trivial items go.

The map Trump showed off in the White House on Wednesday — the unaltered version, at least — was a five-day forecast from the National Hurricane Center issued at 11 a.m. on Aug. 29. The “cone of uncertainty” included most of Florida, excluding the panhandle west of the “Big Bend” area, and a little bit of southeastern Georgia.

Five days is as far out as the National Hurricane Center will go. Hurricanes — the most powerful synoptic scale systems in weather — are unpredictable. In fact, the National Hurricane Center cautions that four or five days out, tropical systems will remain in the cone only 60 percent or 70 percent of the time.

Pressed by reporters about it on Wednesday, Trump insisted, at one point last week, there was a “95 percent” chance of Dorian impacting Alabama. But no part of Alabama was ever in the forecast cone, which is accurate 60 percent or 70 percent of the time five days in advance.

The only probabilistic measure of an impact on Alabama ever issued by the National Hurricane Center was a product that predicts the chance of tropical storm-force winds of 39 miles per hour or greater occurring in a five-day period. The greatest odds for any site in Alabama to receive winds of tropical storm intensity was 11 percent, in a forecast issued on Aug. 30. And that change quickly diminished to 0 percent.

Put another way, two days before Trump’s first tweet mentioning a supposed threat to Alabama, it was clear — both from the models and the forecasts — that Dorian would turn north and northeastward either over Florida or before it reached Florida, meaning Alabama and the rest of the Gulf Coast would be spared.

On Thursday, the White House went as far as to release a statement from Rear Admiral Peter J. Brown, Trump’s homeland security and counterterrorism adviser, saying Alabama had been in the path of the storm.

Trump sees admitting error as a form of fatal weakness. He has a long history of crafting illusions about himself, going back to his reality TV days and his spinning to New York tabloids, and it was a natural transition for him to segue into wielding rank disinformation as a political weapon, as a species of power. Admitting to having gotten something wrong on the facts is akin to allowing for the existence of such things as controlling factual reality and sincere, fact-based argumentation in search of genuinely agreed-upon truths.

On Friday (Day 6 of Sharpiegate, for those keeping track), this was released by NOAA:

It is the last part that drew my attention, and prompts this post.

What “spokesperson” made this statement, and why? Was the Birmingham Sunday morning tweet incorrect?

This goes to credibility — a VERY important thing when it comes to hurricane paths. If people can’t trust the National Weather Service, people die.

Fortunately, those in the weather biz support the Birmingham Office. The American Meteorological Society issued a statement of support for the NWS, writing: “AMS believes the criticism of the Birmingham forecast office is unwarranted; rather they should have been commended for their quick action based on science in clearly communicating the lack of threat to the citizens of Alabama.”

Better still, we learn this today:

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s acting chief scientist said in an email to colleagues Sunday that he is investigating whether the agency’s response to President Trump’s Hurricane Dorian tweets constituted a violation of NOAA policies and ethics.

In an email to NOAA staff that was obtained by The Washington Post, the official, Craig McLean, called the agency’s response “political” and a “danger to public health and safety.”


In his email to employees Sunday, McLean criticized his agency’s public statement, saying it prioritized politics over NOAA’s mission.

“The NWS Forecaster(s) corrected any public misunderstanding in an expert and timely way, as they should,” McLean wrote. “There followed, last Friday, an unsigned press release from ‘NOAA’ that inappropriately and incorrectly contradicted the NWS forecaster. My understanding is that this intervention to contradict the forecaster was not based on science but on external factors including reputation and appearance, or simply put, political.”

He also wrote that “the content of this press release is very concerning as it compromises the ability of NOAA to convey life-saving information necessary to avoid substantial and specific danger to public health and safety.”


If the public cannot trust our information, or we debase our forecaster’s warnings and products, that specific danger arises,” McLean wrote.

As a result, McLean told his staff that “I am pursuing the potential violations of our NOAA Administrative Order on Scientific Integrity.”

“I have a responsibility to pursue these truths,” he added. “I will.” McClean has extensive experience in NOAA’s ocean programs, and is also an attorney who has practiced marine resource law. He has been awarded the Department of Commerce Silver and Bronze Medals, among other accolades.


[NOAA] also appeared to try to correct the record without angering the president. According to emails obtained by The Post, prior to the statement on Friday, NOAA staff were instructed to “only stick with official National Hurricane Center forecasts if questions arise from some national level social media posts which hit the news this afternoon” and not to “provide any opinion” in response to President Trump’s initial Alabama tweets.
The agency sent a similar message warning scientists and meteorologists not to speak out on Sept. 4, after Trump showed a hurricane map from Aug. 29 modified with a hand-drawn, half-circle in black Sharpie around Alabama.

This morning, the National Weather Service Director Louis Uccellini got a standing ovation at a major weather industry conference in Huntsville, Ala., when he broke with his bosses at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration by enthusiastically backing his agency’s forecasters regarding their performance during Hurricane Dorian.

What happens during a flu epidemic when the regime dislikes the numbers? What happens when employment figures are fudged to please the ruling party? What happens when the vote doesn’t come in the way Trump wishes? This is why the NOAA scandal matters.

Here’s hoping something comes of this.


WASHINGTON — The Secretary of Commerce threatened to fire top employees at NOAA on Friday after the agency’s Birmingham office contradicted President Trump’s claim that Hurricane Dorian might hit Alabama, according to three people familiar with the discussion.

That threat led to an unusual, unsigned statement later that Friday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration disavowing the office’s own position that Alabama was not at risk. The reversal caused widespread anger within the agency and drew criticism from the scientific community that NOAA, a division of the Commerce Department, had been bent to political purposes.

Officials at the White House and the Commerce Department declined to comment on administration involvement in the NOAA statement.

The actions by the Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur L. Ross Jr., are the latest developments in a political imbroglio that began more than a week ago, when Dorian was bearing down on the Bahamas and Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter that Alabama would be hit “harder than anticipated.” A few minutes later, the National Weather Service in Birmingham, Ala., posted on Twitter that “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from Dorian. We repeat, no impacts from Hurricane Dorian will be felt across Alabama.”

Mr. Trump persisted in saying that Alabama was at risk and a few days later, on Sept. 4, he displayed a NOAA map that appeared to have been altered with a black Sharpie to include Alabama in the area potentially affected by Dorian.

Mr. Ross, the Commerce Secretary, intervened two days later, early last Friday, according to the three people familiar with his actions. Mr. Ross phoned Neil Jacobs, the acting administrator of NOAA, from Greece where the secretary was traveling for meetings and instructed Dr. Jacobs to fix the agency’s perceived contradiction of the president.

\Dr. Jacobs objected to the demand and was told that the political staff at NOAA would be fired if the situation was not fixed, according to the three individuals, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the episode. Unlike career government employees, political staff are appointed by the administration. They usually include a handful of top officials, such as Dr. Jacobs, and their aides.

There have already been half a dozen instances of open corruption from Wilbur Ross If House Democrats want to do a dry run on their impeachment hearings, he would be a great place to start.