Trump Hurricane Map Undermines Trust In Forecasts, Meteorologists Fear

Sep 11, 2019
Originally published on September 11, 2019 6:07 am

A doctored hurricane map President Donald Trump presented inside the Oval Office to bolster his claim about storm threats to Alabama — less than a day after Dorian flattened the Northern Bahamas and left at least 50 dead — continues to send ripples through the weather community this week.

Following a day of fast-breaking news that included calls by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's chief scientist for an investigation and threats of firings, NOAA's acting director tried to calm fears during the National Weather Service's annual conference Tuesday morning.

"No one's job is under threat. Not mine, not yours," Neil Jacobs told the group. "The weather service team has my full support and the support of the department."

In Miami, where the National Hurricane Center is based, scientists were stunned by events.

Former National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield, who led the agency from 2000 to 2007, said in an email that NOAA officials threw Birmingham weather forecasters  "under the bus" when they publicly rebuked meteorologists for correcting the president's claim. Mayfield also worried the flare-up is taking the focus off the devastation in the Bahamas.

"I have friends in Marsh Harbour," he wrote.

The controversy is being seen as the latest attack on science by an administration that has sparred with scientists over climate change research and other environmental issues. On Monday, the New York Times reported that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross threatened to fire weather service employees after NOAA's top scientist ordered the investigation into a statement scolding Birmingham meteorologists. The investigation was first reported by the Washington Post. 

"It really is crazy," said Brian McNoldy, a hurricane researcher at the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. "This isn't just about a tweet. It's about the distrust this sews in the National Weather Service, which is a dangerous thing."

Across Twitter, meteorologists were dismayed.

"The narrative should have been congratulations to the weather enterprise for providing top-notch forecasting & information during Hurricane Dorian — a point of national pride," meteorologist Ryan Maue tweeted.

"Weather forecasts should never be political," wrote former NOAA director Jane Lubcheno, who co-authored a Washington Post column. "Even a hint that a forecast or warning was influenced by politics would undermine the public's trust." 

The National Hurricane Center referred questions to NOAA. NOAA did not respond to an email. But in his keynote address Monday at the same NWS meeting, Director Louis Uccellini praised his staff, which received a standing ovation.

"They did what any office would do. With an emphasis they deemed essential to shut down what they thought were rumors, they quickly acted to reassure the partners, the media and the pubilc with strong language that there was no threat ," Uccellini said. "Let me be clear, the Birmingham office did this to stop public panic, to ensure public safety."

Trump ignited the skirmish on Sept. 1 when he tweeted that Alabama was among the states threatened by Dorian "much harder than anticipated."

Twenty minutes later, the Birmingham National Weather Service office tweeted a correction: "Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian."

Then, three days later during a midday news conference, as Dorian churned about 100 miles off the Florida coast, Trump presented a familiar hurricane track map depicting the cone of concern. An additional loop was drawn onto the cone, extending across Alabama. In fact, forecast tracks issued by the hurricane center as it neared the Florida coast never extended the cone beyond the Alabama's southeast border.

Trump also later tweeted a graphic produced by the South Florida Water Management District depicting model runs available on the National Hurricane Center's website.

"As you can see, almost all models predicted it to go through Florida also hitting Georgia and Alabama. I accept the Fake News apologies!" he said.

The "spaghetti" graphic from the morning of Aug. 28 showed at least 20 model runs. Some crossed Alabama, but they extended over different time periods and included single runs and ensemble, or group tracks.

It's unclear how the district map made its way to the White House. District officials said on background they did not provide it. The district is one of the few government agencies that produces the graphic.

The spaghetti models can draw both scorn and attention from meteorologists. They frequently get posted on Twitter and storm chatboards and streamlined versions appear on television newscasts. But meteorologists warn they're hard to interpret. Even the district includes a disclaimer warning that "these spaghetti plots are intended for use by individuals with proper training and expertise."

McNoldy said they're frequently used by researchers.

"Anybody can make those plots all day long," he said. But when it comes to forecasts, specialists at the hurricane center factor in a lot of other variables.

"There's a lot of different lines on there that most people don't understand," he said. "And that's OK. These things are not really meant to be read by the average person. They require expert interpretation. And that's what the hurricane center is there to do."

And while the model runs may produce forecasts that extend more than a week, hurricane forecasters limit projections to five days because they become less reliable.

"Just because we see these lines that go out five to eight days," he said, "that doesn't mean we should use them and interpret them how we wish."

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