Washington, DC December 8, 2016 – The National Weather Service is dramatically shifting away from local forecasting and steadily shrinking its forecaster staff, according to an internal document posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). These steps by the National Weather Service (NWS) have not been presented to Congress or the public, despite apparently being in the works for years.
The changes are outlined in a July 25, 2016 PowerPoint briefing for Bruce Andrews, Deputy Secretary of Commerce, by the NWS Director and Deputy Director. It details how the NWS has experienced a net loss of 500 staff just since FY 2010 and warns that “critical” vacancies “remain unfilled, increasing risk and overtaxing existing workforce….” Rather than filling the vacancies, however, the NWS plans to downsize the capacities of its network of 122 local Weather Forecast Offices by:
- Reducing responsibility for issuing warnings of severe weather down to only 40 offices. For example, the current 10 Forecast Offices in Texas and 6 in Florida that issue warnings for their areas of responsibility would be reduced to only two for each state;
- Cutting staff levels from around 25 employees per office to as few as 3 to 5 employees and eliminating backup, jettisoning need for “each shift to have two staff members”; and
- Shifting from 24/7 coverage to having forecasters only work “business hours.”
“The rise in extreme weather events across the country argues for increasing rather than stripping local forecasting capacity,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, pointing to the NWS motto of a “Weather Ready Nation.” “How can we be ‘Weather Ready’ if local forecasters work only ‘business hours’?”
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This planned loss of local forecasting would be paired with an increased reliance on a centralized, automated system called “NWS Evolve” which is described as “a collaborative forecast process” based upon a “central, common starting point without local grid editing.” The plan, however, does not explain how centralized forecasting can replace knowledge of local phenomena, terrain and infrastructure which the current network of forecast offices now provides.
Disturbingly, the PowerPoint casts this shift as bureaucratic rather than science-based with this note:
“Update: NWS has just hired a strategic Comms expert to help win messaging battle with” its employee union.
“This is a matter of public safety, not a ‘messaging battle,” added Ruch, observing that President-elect Trump’s vow for a hiring freeze may leave the NWS mid-stream, under-staffed to either perform or evolve. “Of all things, weather forecasting should be above politics and one of the few areas where even a gridlocked Congress can cooperate – provided that the Congress is informed.”