The director or National Hurricane Center (NHC) Bill Proenza is threatened with firing or demotion. He was put on leave after a staff revolt that revolved around arguments of how to respond to budget cuts to the NHC and NASA earth observation programs. Congressman Brad Miller is investigating the possibility that Bill Proenza is suffering from retribution for being a whistleblower.
One key satellite is failing and no replacement is going to be launched. Moreover other useful earth observation satellites are not being launched either. Funds have been diverted away from the NHC and NASA earth observation investigations to other activities, apparently for political reasons.
An intense hurricane season is predicted, but the NHC in engulfed in internal and external battles. And a number Atlantic basin weather buoys in key locations are out of service right now. The buoys are critical for tracking storms and swell trains that cause coastal wave damage.
Schoolchildren navigated the steep steps down from the Orion P3 as I walked up the tarmac. The battered, but proud, hurricane hunter plane's wingshielded me from the cool wind-driven rain.
ELIZABETH CITY - Trucks, trailers, ambulances, helicopters and planes lined up along the flight line outside Hangar 55 at the U.S. Coast Guard station.
There were vehicles from several military branches, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and local and regional emergency responders from as near as Elizabeth City and as far as Pitt County.
It's a scene normally reserved for the aftermath of a hurricane, but Thursday's gathering was an open house to raise public awareness of the upcoming storm season.
I ignored everything but the plane, her crew and the exiting children. I wanted to meet the crew and see the equipment inside.
I was mildly shocked by the interior. Spartan is a bit too kind to describe it. The plane has been flying through hurricanes, nor-easters, massive thunderstorm complexes and typhoons for 32 years without any cosmetic maintenance on the interior. The technical equipment was solid and modern with utterly no frills. Every available dollar had gone into essential maintenance and scientific equipment. Zero was for show.
The crew was bright and friendly. I spent a long time talking to a young man who had recently worked his way onto the hurricane hunter team as a navigator. He had hard core ocean rescue skills with experience in navigation and diving. Hurricane hunting was his dream job.
I asked a number of questions about the problems involved in making a flight plan to collect essential hurricane data. They use multiple navigation systems including GPS. I was surprised that one key device he used was a cheap personal hand held GPS unit. I didn't have the courage to ask if he paid for it with his own money or donated funds. The hurricane hunter's auxiliary unit was selling T shirts on the plane to raise funds.
I discovered that many of the missions into storms are now being covered by the air force. The air force gathers data needed to locate and track the storms, but does not gather additional data used in research studies to develop better forecasts based on improved scientific understanding. The NHC's science budget is very tight, so they have cut back on missions.
The toughness and determination of the crew was palpable. However, when I asked a senior officer about last winter's mission into a major nor-easter off the Canadian maritimes, he didn't want to talk about it. That storm made him sick and he didn't want to bring back the memories. I hadn't realized that a major nor-easter was more difficult to fly through than a major hurricane.
The local media that had come to see the plane destroyed my inherent prejudice against them. They asked serious questions and made educational spots to prepare coastal residents for the coming hurricane season. They were excited to sit in the cockpit and show the plane to the public, while discussing its work. This was small outlet TV at its best. Weather and wave forecasting in a coastal community is a matter of life and death to boaters, fishermen and anyone in the water. These weather reporters knew that. The TV forecasters had all studied meteorology and communications. There was no fluff.
For me it was an exciting but disturbing trip. I had just met wonderful people who were under tremendous pressure because they weren't getting enough support from the bureaucrats and politicians in Washington.
Little did I know that weeks later the NHC would be embroiled in controversy. The controversy started over a letter about an aging satellite that measures the scattering of radar off of waves on water.
MIAMI — An aging weather satellite crucial to accurate predictions on the intensity and path of hurricanes could fail at any moment and plans to launch a replacement have been pushed back seven years to 2016.
In a letter obtained by The Associated Press, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's chief said the failure of the QuikScat satellite could bring more uncertainty to forecasts and widen the areas that are placed under hurricane watches and warnings.
If the satellite faltered, experts estimate that the accuracy of two-day forecasts would suffer by 10% and three-day forecasts by 16%, which could translate into miles of coastline and the difference between a city being evacuated or not.
What the media won't tell you is how critical this satellite is for surf forecasting. QuikScat wind vectors are critical inputs to wave generation models. QuikScat provides data that are important to planning ocean activities and to ocean safety. Large swell trains can be very dangerous to small boats and fisherman. Surfers depend on accurate swell forecasting for planning safe surf trips. And for ferries, big swells can be killers.
A ferry carrying more than 600 passengers sank in the Java Sea between the island of Java and Borneo just before midnight on December 29, 2006, during high winds and rough seas. On January 1, 2007, a plane carrying more than 100 people crashed on its flight over the Java Sea; high winds and turbulent weather are being investigated as possible causes. The origin of surges of deadly winds in this usually relatively calm region is poorly monitored and understood. However, ocean winds data from NASA's QuikScat satellite show potential for helping alleviate such deficiencies.
Data obtained from QuikScat on December 30 and January 1 shed new insights into the atmospheric conditions at the time of these incidents. QuikScat data are available in near real time to operational weather forecasting agencies around the world. The data from December 30 and January 1 observed that the strong winds in the Java Sea originated from the surge of a strong winter monsoon from the Asian continent. The monsoon winds blew south across the South China Sea and deflected eastward after they crossed the equator due to the rotation of Earth. The winds strengthened as they were channeled through the land masses of Indonesia. The winds in the Java Sea remained strong through January 1, 2007.
Unfortunately, QuikScat is beginning to fail.
Some scientists also complain that the technology planned for the replacement satellite is less precise for hurricane forecasting than what is currently flying.
QuikScat, launched in 1999 and designed to last two to three years, provides key data on wind speed and direction over the ocean. Weather aircraft and buoys can also obtain similar measurements near a storm, but they do not provide a constant flow of data as QuikScat does.
Last year, the satellite suffered a major setback — the failure of a transmitter used to send data to Earth about every 90 minutes. Now the satellite is limping along on a backup transmitter and has other problems.
The backup transmitter could last years, but there are no guarantees and no warnings when it is about to fail, said Robert Gaston, who works with the satellite at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Emergency managers like Sallade have been briefed on the satellite's problems. They said if they cannot rely on forecasts, they may have to make crucial decisions earlier, such as evacuating hospital patients or moving around emergency equipment.
Emergency managers estimate that the total costs of evacuations are up to $1 million per mile of coastline, meaning wider evacuations could be expensive.
As critical as this satellite is to surf and weather QUICKSCAT has other uses as well (JPL press release).
"Recent studies indicate Arctic perennial ice is declining seven to 10 percent each decade," explained Ron Kwok of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "Our study gives the first reliable estimates of how perennial ice replenishment varies each year at the end of summer. The amount of first-year ice that survives the summer directly influences how thick the ice cover will be at the start of the next melt season."
Using satellite data from NASA's QuikScat and other data, Kwok studied six annual cycles of Arctic perennial ice coverage from 2000 to 2006. The scatterometer instrument on QuikScat sends radar pulses to the surface of the ice and measures the echoed radar pulses bounced back to the satellite. These measurements allow scientists to differentiate the seasonal ice from the older, perennial ice.
Kwok found that after the 2005 summer melt, only about four percent of the nearly 2.5 million square kilometers (965,000 square miles) of thin, seasonal ice that formed the previous winter survived the summer and replenished the perennial ice cover. That was the smallest replenishment seen in the study. As a result, perennial ice coverage in January 2006 was about 14 percent smaller than the previous January.
Kwok examined how movement of ice out of the Arctic affected the replenishment of perennial sea ice in 2005. That year, the typically small amount of ice that moves out of the Arctic in summer was unusually high -- about seven percent of the perennial ice coverage area. Kwok said the high amount was due to unusual wind conditions at Fram Strait, an Arctic passage between Antarctic Bay in Greenland and Svalbard, Norway. Troughs of low atmospheric pressure in the Greenland and Barents/Norwegian Seas on both sides of Fram Strait created winds that pushed ice out of the Arctic at an increased rate.
The effects of ice movement out of the Arctic depend on the season. When ice moves out of the Arctic in the summer, it leaves behind an ocean that does not refreeze. This, in turn, increases ocean heating and leads to additional thinning of the ice cover.
These findings suggest that the greater the number of freezing temperature days during the prior season, the thicker the ice cover, and the better its chances of surviving the next summer's melt. "The winters and summers before fall 2005 were unusually warm," Kwok said. "The low replenishment seen in 2005 is potentially a cumulative effect of these trends."
Kwok also examined the 2000-2006 temperature records within the context of longer-term temperature records dating back to 1958. He found a gradual warming trend in the first 30 years, which accelerated after the mid-1980s. "The record doesn't show any hint of recovery from these trends," he stated. "If the correlations between replenishment area and numbers of freezing and melting temperature days hold long-term, its expected the perennial ice coverage will continue to decline."
Kwok points to a possible trigger for the declining perennial ice cover. In the early 1990s, variations in the North Atlantic Oscillation, a large-scale atmospheric seesaw that affects how air circulates over the Atlantic Ocean, were linked to a large increase in Arctic ice export. It appears the ice cover has not yet recovered from these variations.
"We're seeing a decreasing trend in perennial ice coverage," he said. "Our study suggests that, on average, the area of seasonal ice that survives the summer may no longer be large enough to sustain a stable perennial ice cover, especially in the face of accelerating climate warming and Arctic sea ice thinning."
Other satellites measure sea ice extent and properties also, but QuikScat has proven to be especially effective. It has also proved effective at detecting never-seen-before large-scale melting of Antarctic snow and ice.
NASA Finds Vast Regions of West Antarctica Melted in Recent Past
May 15, 2007
A team of NASA and university scientists has found clear evidence that extensive areas of snow melted in west Antarctica in January 2005 in response to warm temperatures. This was the first widespread Antarctic melting ever detected with NASA's QuikScat satellite and the most significant melt observed using satellites during the past three decades. Combined, the affected regions encompassed an area as big as California.
Son Nghiem of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., and Konrad Steffen, director of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder, led the team. Using data from QuikScat, they measured snowfall accumulation and melt in Antarctica and Greenland from July 1999 through July 2005.
The observed melting occurred in multiple distinct regions, including far inland, at high latitudes and at high elevations, where melt had been considered unlikely. Evidence of melting was found up to 900 kilometers (560 miles) inland from the open ocean, farther than 85 degrees south (about 500 kilometers, or 310 miles, from the South Pole) and higher than 2,000 meters (6,600 feet) above sea level. Maximum air temperatures at the time of the melting were unusually high, reaching more than five degrees Celsius (41 degrees Fahrenheit) in one of the affected areas. They remained above melting for approximately a week.
Bill Proenza, the Director of the NHC who has advocated strongly for a replacement for QuikScat, has apparently lost his job over his advocacy.
The National Hurricane Center director, Bill Proenza, was forced to step down the week before last after criticising his bosses and suggesting that the loss of QuickScat would keep the NHC from doing its job effectively. He was called before Congress on Thursday to explain his position.
Bill Proenza, who recently took over the job as NHC director, was trying to reverse a decision that was made in 2006.
Nasa scrapped a proposed mission to replace QuickScat in 2006. The Ocean Vector Winds (OVW) mission would have provided continuity with QuickScat, but was never funded.
An updated version, the Extended OVW Mission (XOVWM), is listed as a priority mission and recommended for launch between 2013 and 2016, in a major study released this year by the National Research Council (NRC). But it does not have funding either.
Proenza was upset about NOAA agency priorities and stepped on toes in his effort to redirect funds to NHC priorities.
From the start, Mr. Proenza made waves by criticizing his superiors at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for spending lavishly on the agency's 200th anniversary while research budgets were constrained. He particularly chastised the agency for failing to replace an aging satellite whose loss, he warned, would reduce the center's accuracy in forecasting the path and landing site of a hurricane.
In June management of the National Weather Service, the parent organization to the NHC, began to respond to Mr. Proenza.
In June, Mary M. Glackin, the acting director of the Weather Service, wrote a letter to Mr. Proenza that said he had disregarded directions from his bosses and made decisions outside his authority.
This week, the Commerce Department sent a team to review the center's operations.
The relationship between this management review and the subsequent letter to management from some NHC staff is not made clear in press reports.
July 7, 2007
The director of the National Hurricane Center, who has for months traded barbs with his superiors at the National Weather Service headquarters in Maryland, now faces an insurrection from his staff in Miami.
On Thursday, 23 people, about half of the center's staff members, signed a letter that calls for a new director and urges the Department of Commerce, which oversees the Weather Service, ''to make this happen as quickly as possible.''
The letter continued, ''The effective functioning of the National Hurricane Center is at stake.''
However, questions have arisen about the motivations behind this letter. Was it prompted by management pressure? Congressman Brad Miller of the House Science and Technology Committee has opened Congressional investigations into the NHC controversy.
On first impression, what’s been unfolding at the Tropical Prediction Center (TPC), it sounds like office politics, something that happens every day at workplaces all across America. Certainly, there are disgruntled employees having difficulty adjusting to a new manager and a new Director trying to adjust to a new chain of command. But on a closer look, something just doesn’t seem quite right, the facts don’t quite add up.
We know that Bill Proenza, before being named Director of the Tropical Prediction Center (TPC) in Miami, had demonstrated that he was a strong, well-regarded leader throughout his seven years as head of the National Weather service Southern Region. We know that by all reports, Mr. Proenza had a strong relationship with the Weather Service union, and was seen by line-employees as one of their staunchest supporters.
We would assume, that if Admiral Lautenbacher was convinced that Mr. Proenza would be a superb replacement for the retiring Max Mayfield, he must have also thought that Mr. Proenza was a competent leader and manager.
What doesn’t make sense is why we are here today, trying to understand why a proven leader with a known track-record has come to find himself in grave difficulties with his own employees and managers.
If you look past the apparently spontaneous rebellion by employees in the lab, and look past what has unfolded at the managerial level of NOAA, the question arises whether Mr. Proenza was pushed out because he was a whistle blower, a truth teller.
Mr. Proenza called attention to the failure of NOAA to take aggressive steps to find a replacement for Quickscat. That has come to be a major talking point for Mr. Proenza in recent months. Some have criticized his comments and the science underlying his observations. To these critics I would note that Mr. Proenza had been relying on staff for this information and so the blame, if there is any, should be spread widely. In addition, to argue about the projected degradation or whether one model matters more than another misses the point that virtually everyone in the meteorological community agrees they need Quickscat. Finally, the source for Mr. Proenza's information shows up in NOAA presentations to the National Research Council in April and in February's "Interagency Strategic Research Plan for Tropical Cyclones" produced by the Office of the Federal Coordinator for Meteorology. To argue about the projected degradation or whether one model matters more than another misses the point.
He also called attention to the amount of money being spent by NOAA to celebrate its 200th Anniversary – an amount that appears to exceed $4 million over FY2006-2007 if one includes the costs of employees working on the issue.
Finally, Mr. Proenza opposed the weather service "downsizing" efforts that had been the hallmark of Mr. Johnson’s tenure at the National Weather Service. For that he earned the gratitude of many in Congress and in the Union.
Not every manager would welcome Mr. Proenza’s willingness to speak out. Some would see him as an annoyance. In addition to the possible motive of silencing an internal critic, the actions of the NOAA management suggest that something isn’t right here, that this isn’t about Mr. Proenza’s deficiencies as a manager. The chronology of events just doesn’t fit.
• By the spring of 2007, Louis Uccellini, Proenza’s immediate supervisor and head of the NECP, began keeping a file on Mr. Proenza containing apparently minor administrative violations by Proenza. It should be noted that while Mr. Uccellini was Mr. Proenza’s superior, he was Mr. Proenza’s junior in the weather service and he and Mr. Proenza had been essentially of equal rank when Proenza was head of the Southern Region of NWS.
• In April of 2007, senior staff at NOAA met at the Admiral Lautenbacher’s direction to work on something labeled in an e-mail as the "Proenza plan." This plan was to have five steps and be run by legal for review... It was shared with D.L. Johnson, then head of the National Weather Service and Jack Kelly, Deputy Undersecretary at NOAA.
• On June 14, three days after being named as Acting Director of the Weather Service, Ms. Mary Glacken approved a memo that listed Mr. Proenza’s minor administrative violations that Mr. Uccellini had collected and urged Mr. Proenza to work through the chain of command and adhere more strenuously to new NOAA media policy.
• On June 21 or 22, TPC senior forecasters—going against the chain of command -complained to Ms. Glacken about Bill Proenza’s leadership. The call was organized by the Executive Officer in the Center, Dr. Ahsha Tribble, who was seen by many at the TPC to be a "headquarters person." Dr. Tribble had arrived at the Hurricane Center just last September after working as Technical Chief of Staff to the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere.
• By June 26, Admiral Lautenbacher assembled a team to be dispatched from Commerce to the Center to evaluate its operations. The team did not include any management or weather experts. Rather than turn to outside parties with expertise in the relevant areas - administration (National Association of Public Administration) or meteorology (National Academy of Science)—the Admiral selected people from within Commerce who had no background in weather service forecast office issues and little expertise in the science. The team’s preparation included meeting with the senior management figures who had played a role in preparing Mr. Proenza’s June memo and in launching the "Proenza plan."
• On July 2, the team arrived on site. Mr. Proenza learned that this team was being sent by a telephone call from the Admiral that was designed to be timed with their arrival. While Mr. Proenza was unaware that a team was being dispatched to the Center of which he was Director, other people at the center knew of their pending arrival. Ahsha Tribble, apparently was assigned to greet the team and take them to Proenza’s office.
Observers outside the center said they were perplexed by the squabble.
''It seems to me very strange,'' said Hugh E. Willoughby, who led the hurricane research division at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from 1995 to 2002. The hurricane center fell outside his purview, but he said he knew many of its staff members.
''These are serious people, not a bunch of brooding malcontents,'' Dr. Willoughby said.
''I think Bill came in as somebody with a sort of broad perspective on the hurricane problem and he knew about this funding problem and he wanted to make a difference right from the start,'' Dr. Willoughby said. But, he added, ''he probably should have managed his people a lot better.''
Robert M. Atlas, the director of the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory, and a member of the team that planned and designed QuikScat, said Mr. Proenza's original statements were accurate. Computer models calculating hurricane paths did do 16 percent worse without QuikScat data, Dr. Atlas said, but other satellites and additional instruments on aircraft could make up some if not most of the shortfall.
However, given the treatment of National Academy of Science member, Dr. James Hansen's work by political appointees there appears to be Bush administration interest in minimizing the problem of climate change.
In 2005 and 2006, Hansen claimed in interviews with the Washington Post and the New York Times that NASA administrators have tried to influence his public statements about the causes of climate change. Hansen claims that NASA public relations staff were ordered to review his public statements and interviews after a December 2005 lecture at the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.
James Hansen has also appeared on 60 Minutes claiming that the White House edited climate-related press releases reported by federal agencies to make global warming seem less threatening. He is unable to speak "freely", without the backlash of other government officials. "In my more than three decades in the government I've never witnessed such restrictions on the ability of scientists to communicate with the public," he said in one of his many public appearances.
Hansen has said that a global tipping point (also known as the runaway effect) will be reached by 2016 if the human population is unable to reduce greenhouse gases . Hansen has said that IPCC scenarios for future sea level rise do not take into account ice sheet disintegration, which could cause several meters of sea level rise during the next century with unchanged climate forcings .
QuickScat has been valuable in weather forecasting; but it was originally designed to provide data on climate, said Dr Liu. Its sensor provides key information on sea ice coverage and wind circulation. Winds and ocean currents are the major drivers of heat between the tropics and the poles.
"It's the coupling of the world's two great fluid systems that actively defines climate," said Michael Freilich, director of Nasa Earth Science Division and former project scientist on QuikScat.
Such basic climate data is important to future forecasting. As the Earth heats up, as scientists expect it to, changing wind patterns will influence upper ocean currents, which in turn are likely to alter that heat transport system from equator to poles.
If the launch of the follow up satellite to QuikScat is delayed, the climate models would not be improved as much and the uncertainties in forecasts would be larger. The larger uncertainties would make climate model forecasts less credible. This would serve the interests of those who want "to make global warming seem less threatening".
Moreover, the NHC may not be the only part of NOAA that collects data for tracking hurricanes and hurricane swells affected by funding problems. I have noticed that other parts of NOAA may be showing signs of problems with maintenance of critical equipment. A key buoy for tracking incoming swells and storms off of the North Carolina coast has been down for months.
Station 41002 went adrift on 02/25/2007 and the last report from its moored position (listed above) was at 2143z. The station has been recovered and transmissions turned off. It will be restored to service when it can be worked into the schedule. When the redeployment date is known, it will be posted in the weekly maintenance report.
Redeployment has been promised for months, but continues to be delayed without explanation. It's not the only failed buoy in Carolina waters.
Station 41004 failed on 7/21/2007 00z. It will be restored to service when it can be worked into the schedule. When the service date is known, it will be posted in the weekly maintenance report.
Station 51003 went adrift on 14 January 2007 and the last report from its moored position (listed above) was at 1400z. The station has been recovered and transmissions turned off. It will be restored to service when it can be worked into the schedule. When the redeployment date is known, it will be posted in the Weekly Maintenance Report.
Station 42058 failed on May 21, 2007. It will be restored to service when it can be worked into the schedule. When the date is known, it will be posted in the weekly maintenance report.
In June, 2006, buoy 42057 was reestablished at the location above. It had previously been moored at 17.60N 80.75W. Station 42057 failed on 07/03/07. It will be restored to service when it can be worked into the schedule. When the service date is known, it will be posted in the weekly maintenance report.
I have been using buoys for surf forecasting for over 10 years. It is normal for a buoy to be out of service for a few months. However, lengthy outages and untimely outages - in the middle of hurricane season - have been infrequent in the past, in my experience.
Most of the Florida buoys have been maintained but the Tampa/Pensacola buoy has been down since January.
Station 42036 failed on 01/16/07. It will be restored to service when it can be worked into the schedule. When the date is known, it will be posted...
But the public is showing declining concern about hurricanes. About one in three are planning to ignore evacuation orders.
About one in three people living in Southern coastal areas said they would ignore hurricane evacuation orders if a storm threatened their community, up from about one in four last year, a poll released Tuesday shows.
The survey found the most common reasons for not evacuating were the same ones that topped last year's Harvard University poll: People believe that their homes are safe and well-built, that roads would be too crowded and that fleeing would be dangerous. Slightly more than one in four also said they would be reluctant to leave behind a pet.
Robert Blendon, the Harvard professor who directed the survey, said the mild 2006 Atlantic hurricane season probably put more coastal residents at ease.
"It just shows how people can become complacent if they're not immediately threatened," Blendon said.
Presently Gulf Stream waters off of Miami and the warm Gulf of Mexico waters are capable of supporting a category 5 hurricane in south Florida. This model gives a maximum potential, so it almost always sets an upper limit for hurricane strength. No storms are present, so there is no reason for immediate concern. However, the chaos at the NHC, the failed buoys and the complacent public are major reasons for concern.
Please email Brad Miller (Link gets your Rep. too) your views about this situation. Congress will be considering appropriation of funds for a replacement to the QuikScat satellite this fall. These are non-partisan safety issues that affect all Americans, so please consider contacting your local representatives and your senators regardless of party affiliation.