2014 NWS trends – Commentary
by Chuck Doswell
Page created: 27 October 2014
last updated: whenever.
This page contains my opinions and since it is on my home Website, no
disclaimer is needed. If you want to discuss the material contained
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As my friends and colleagues in the operational weather forecasting
world move toward an inevitably uncertain future, my professional
career received its highest possible validation: the National
Weather Association’s Special Lifetime Achievement Award. The
award was made in 2013, but I was unable to attend the awards ceremony
that year, so it was recently given to me at the 2014 NWA Annual
Meeting in Salt Lake City. During my time at the meeting, I saw that some trends evidently are underway in the
National Weather Service (NWS) that will have major impacts on the
services provided by the NWS. And if these trends continue, it
will have major impacts on the staff of the NWS - the very people I've dedicated my career to support.
Although not elaborated upon in this essay, there is also the ongoing
juggernaut leading toward full automation of the existing weather
forecasts and services. I have numerous essays on that and
related topics here, and I have no wish to repeat all of that.
Nevertheless, that ongoing process of automating the forecasts has a
bearing on the present discussion. Here, I’m simply noting that
this is another issue of concern, but one I (and others) have written
about extensively in the past.
In 2012, the NWS Central Region initiated an "experiment" that provided
graded threat levels to their warnings based on the potential impacts
of the warned-for events. At the time, I was critical of this
"experiment" - describing it as ill-timed, ill-conceived, and poorly
Impact-based Warnings (IBW)
The timing of this "experiment" is poor, in that the whole notion of
impact-based warnings (IBW) had not (and still has not) been explored in any systematic,
comprehensive way prior to the execution of the initial
experiment. In no way was the notion of IBW based on large amounts of
concrete information as to its efficacy, and virtually no consideration
was given to possible unintended consequences and negative side
effects. One should not provide revised critical services
to the public without first having done the work to test the ideas in a
purely experimental setting (i.e., not going directly to the public
users of these products). Prior to the introduction of new ways
of providing those services, moreover, there should have been an
extensive public information campaign to inform the public about what
changes were coming and how to use the new products. This was
simply someone's idea of how to fix a problem that had not been
examined thoroughly, and so was not clearly enough understood even to begin proposed new products. This experiment was egregriously
premature. Hence, ill-timed.
Given the absence of a reasonably thorough understanding of the
problem(s) associated with the existing warning products, this plan likely was
created by someone in NWS management, somewhere.
Its potential impacts on the forecasters tasked with executing this
experiment were not given any sort of thorough considerations.
Surely, the proper way to assess that would have been to experiment
with these new products in an operational setting but without
transmitting them to the users. Training in their use should have
been provided, as well, but I doubt if anyone in the system was really
qualified to train forecasters in how to do much of anything that
forecasters are asked to do. It was a half-baked idea to start with.
Consider the forecast experiment design (taken from their own website):
1. Optimize the convective warning system within the existing
Optimize with respect to what? What does "optimize" mean in this
context - just do the best you can? Is it realistic to expect
truly to optimize something done within the context of an
experiment? It seems to me that if anything "optimal" could be
designed, that would come after the experiment, rather than as it was
2. Motivate proper response to warnings by distinguishing
Just what's considered "proper response to warnings"? The
responses by people to being informed of potentially hazardous weather
can vary considerable within the non-monolithic population known as
"the public". How can warnings manage to cover that vast spectrum
of possible responses? Do we really want people to respond like
automatons to our warnings, and do immediately what we tell them to
do? Are forecasters aware of and knowledgeable about enough
aspects of a situation to assess the urgency? It's reasonable to
expect forecasters to know
about the meteorological situation, but that"s not what seems to be the
3. Realign the warning message in terms of societal impacts
Just what does "realign" mean? Reword? Revise? How
are forecasters supposed to "realign" the warning messages? On
what social science finds can such a realignment take place? It
seems to me that a lot of research needs to be done before we start
playing around with the warning messages. A primary directive to
consider in any proposed changes: First, do no harm!
4. Communicate recommended actions/precautions more concisely
As I'll elaborate upon below, the time for calls-to-action is notduring
the few minutes prior to the arrival of hazardous weather.
This should take place months before, and if so, there's no particular
need to be concise. The message of informing people about proper
preparation for hazardous weather shouldn't be conveyed at the last
minute by means of some simple catch phrase or two. And the
"proper" actions for
different people will be different. There's no set of "one size
fits all" recommendations we can make! Many segments of the
public necessary will be left out of any CTAs we cram onto the tail end
of a warning. Whose needs take priority?
The mandated graded warnings in this experiment were simply a rehash of some things done
unofficially by forecasters in the past (e.g., the "tornado
emergency"). Obviously there was no serious research put into
this experimental design.
5. Evaluate ability to distinguish between low impact and high
This is so absurd, it boggles the mind to consider it! Surely the
evaluation of forecasters' ability to do this should be done long
before we expect them to perform this task at a high level in the heat of a
hazardous weather situation!
All of the preceding makes is pretty evident that the original experiment
was flawed in several ways. I’m sure that forecasters did (and
are doing) the best they could under the circumstances they’d been
given. This cancerous experiment now (2014) has metastasized to
other offices and other NWS regions, so the juggernaut of IBW rolls
forward, without regard to the issues I've raised.
Overall, I have no problem with warnings that have graded threat levels
- quite the opposite, in fact. But the graded threat I believe needs to be incorporated is not that
of the impact on the public but rather the forecaster’s perception of
the threat of hazardous weather. That is, the probability of
hazardous weather reaching some threshold, however that might be
communicated effectively. I’ve talked about that in essays here
A forecaster should be able to describe his/her confidence that a
particular event will occur, given that such an occurrence probability
has met some threshold where the threat is now at the point where it needs to be mentioned.
Deciding on how best to express that confidence remains to be determined, and
a lot of work will be needed to reach some recommendations based on that research. But for a
forecaster to know all the external factors that affect people within
the path of a storm is impossible. Forecasters should be allowed
to forecast the weather
and not be required to give any consideration to
impacts. Those impacts are best delineated by those
decision-makers whose decisions could be influenced by the weather
forecast but which are influenced by many factors besides the
weather. Given that forecasters can't possibly know the factors
influencing everyone's decisions, they have no legitimate basis for
making impact estimates.
If the NWS accepts some responsibility for what happens in the world outside
of the NWS after a forecast/warning is issued (and I believe they should), there surely is a need
for knowledgeable experts to help train users put NWS-provided weather
information to use to serve their needs. But forecasters are not
educated and receive no training in how do fulfill such tasks. Forecasting the weather is quite challenging -
challenging enough to occupy a forecaster’s full attention.
If we convolve impacts with our forecasts, it can only degrade
forecasting performance. I recall some discussions in SELS (the
"old days"!) about issuing tornado watches in rural Montana, because
there were too few people to be affected. Should forecasters
forecast the weather or the impacts of that weather? I believe
they need to forecast the weather and nothing else!
Although I've commented extensively on "call-to-action" statements here, I’d like to bring up a topic that arose at the NWA Annual
Meeting: the notion of "nuisance" floods as opposed to major
flooding events. Someone commented "It's not a nuisance flood if
someone dies!" I beg to differ with that statement! There's
a clear distinction between a truly devastating flash flood (e.g., the
Big Thompson flood event of 31 July 1976) and some case involving minor
urban flooding that just happens to include a rare fatality. Over the years, I've found that it's impossible
to prevent people from making bad decisions and getting themselves
killed even in what are well-forecast but meteorologically relatively minor events.
Would it truly be possible to anticipate the impact of one person's
stupid mistake that resulted in their death in an otherwise marginal event?
I think not, and it's foolish even to consider that it might be
possible. Otherwise, we'd have to issue warnings for virtually
every storm, no matter how meteorologically weak it might be.
I hope the NWS does indeed move toward including impacts in the
process of serving public needs. However, I don't think the forecasters should be
expected to take that on as an additional aspect of their job.
People qualified to get involved with impacts would need a very
different skill set than what meteorologist/forecasters are given to
qualify for their position. Therefore, if the NWS goes after impacts,
it will have to change the character of their staffing. If
they're not going to hire a bunch of new people to address impacts,
then they're going to have to retrain and reassign existing staff to
cover that responsibility. This likely would require employing fewer forecasters,
and a probable shift of most of the the forecast/warning products to an
Weather Ready Nation (WRN)
It seems there's another juggernaut rolling in the NWS: the
drive toward a so-called "Weather/Storm Ready Nation". I’ve already
commented on that topic at some length here and here.
I continue to describe the existing "certification" of storm
readiness to be little more than lip service to being truly storm
ready. The basic concept of minimizing the impact of hazardous
weather events is one that I certainly believe is worthwhile, but I
don't believe the NWS is willing to commit to making that become actual
reality. This means a lot of public education, a lot of research
into existing structures, and an assessment of the cost vs. benefits of
retrofitting existing structures to become tornado resistant. I endorse any such efforts in principle, but the practical reality is that the task is large and resources are limited.
If we consider seeking a "Weather Ready Nation" to be simply an
overarching philosophy rather than some specific set of tasks, then
this entails developing a vast array of new efforts for the wide
variety of hazards the weather might bring our way: storms of all
sorts (including very rare events such as a tornado hitting a large
entertainment venue), heat waves, cold waves, seiches, avalanches,
etc. This doesn't mean I disagree with any specific efforts to
get the NWS involved - far from it. I think most any effort is
better than no effort at all (but first, do no harm!). However,
the investment of resources required to do the job of preparing everyone for all
weather-related hazards of all sorts seems far in excess of what the
NWS could ever commit. Yes, one doesn't expect this to happen all
at once, but the task seems gargantuan to me, and I'm not convinced the
NWS recognizes how little their existing resources allow them to do
compared to the need. The goal of reaching the status of a truly
weather-ready nation is likely many decades away, if it ever can be attained.
As an example of a major challenge: it seems obvious to me that the existing home construction
standards in the US are far less stringent than they need to be to
become "weather ready" in more than name only. I think the same
standards that exist along the coastal zones to resist the impact of
hurricanes should be applied also to the tornado-prone regions of the
US (everything east of the Continental Divide). This is a complex
topic and people have to consider their choices carefully.
Unfortunately, the structural integrity of your home in a tornado (for
instance) depends in part on the construction quality of your neighbors'
homes! Debris from poorly-constructed nearby structures can hit
and cause damage well beyond what the wind would have done by
itself. The flying debris from flimsy homes magnifies
the damage along a tornado track. Much research needs to be done
to deal with such issues in practical terms, and people need to
understand what their real
risks are in order to make decisions that are good for them as
simultaneously good for their communities. Needless to say, most
builders are strongly (and effectively) opposed to any enhanced
Another thorny issue is development in flood-prone areas, including
along the coasts. As it stands, the nation is paying a huge price
for people to live in the center of a bullseye, with the inevitable
result virtually every year that someone is devastated by flood or
oceanic surges due to storms. In a truly weather-ready nation, no
such development would be permitted and vulnerable locations would be
abandoned. Good luck with getting that implemented!
The whole problem of making us a WRN is a lot more challenging than the
NWS realizes or is ready to commit to make happen - in my opinion, of
course. I find the headlong rush to WRN goals to be na´ve and
potentially problematic. We are creating an illusion of security
that isn’t commensurate with the true security of communities.
That could come back to haunt us - no, it will come back to haunt us.