NOAA Hiring Freeze: Capabilities Head Down a Slippery Slope

March 29, 2013 · 2 comments

by J. Marshall ShepherdAMS President. The full text was posted earlier today on his blog, Still Here and Thinking.

This week NOAA, the parent agency for the National Weather Service (NWS), announced a hiring freeze at a time when its vacancy rate is already around 10%. I understand that this number is near 20% for the Washington, D.C. area NWS Office. At this point, pause and consider public safety. As we enter the severe weather/tornado season, the Sequester has forced the hand of our NOAA management and possibly jeopardized the American public’s safety, stifled scientific capacity, obliterated morale within NOAA/NWS, and dampened hopes for the next generation of federal meteorological workforce.  Beyond safety, we have increasingly clear evidence that weather is important to our economy, a critical consideration for an agency in the Department of Commerce.

Now to be clear, I know, personally, the senior level managers at NOAA/NWS very well: they will do everything within their power to adjust and mitigate impact. This commentary is really not about them.

Like our dedicated military, border patrol agents, police officers, and firefighters, NOAA employees provide a valuable public service that affects our lives every day, including warnings and alerts. A community would be outraged at cuts to a nearby Fire Station staff, particularly during a rash of arsons. Additionally, NOAA/NWS personnel are increasingly missing as subject matter experts for major Emergency Management training and conferences.

The vibrant and critical private weather enterprise adds value to data, models, and warnings from NWS. I have often joked that NOAA is to the private sector weather enterprise, what the potato farmer is to a company that makes French fries. It is a vital partnership, which includes research and applications from academic partners as well. The AMS Washington Forum will bring together these sectors for a vital meeting next week, including the increasingly important discussion about creation of a U.S. Weather Commission.

I am fearful of what is happening in our community with draconian sequester cuts, challenges to travel/science meeting attendance and other stresses on science/R&D support within NOAA, including journal publications, fees, etc. If you couple this with looming concerns about weather satellite gaps, computing capacity to support advanced modeling, and employee morale, we are slipping down a slippery slope of “eroding” the U.S. federal weather enterprise. Since industry, academia, and federal agencies work closely together, these effects will ripple throughout the broader community.
The public may take for granted a tornado warning based on Doppler radar or a hurricane forecast based on satellite information. Likewise, the public probably just assumes that they will have 5-9 day warning for storms like Sandy; 15-60 minutes lead time for tornadic storms approaching their home; weather data for safe air travel; or reliable information to avoid hazardous weather threatening military missions. However, these capabilities can and will degrade if we cut weather balloon launches, cut investments in the latest computers for modeling, reduce radar maintenance, delay satellite launches, or shatter employee morale. We are accustomed to progress and innovation, but I fear capabilities will regress instead, jeopardizing our lives, property, and security. And I have not even spoken about the challenges that a changing climate adds to the weather mix.

At my university, I see young, vibrant, and talented students everyday who embody the next generation weather enterprise. They are taking notice of what is happening, and I believe this seriously jeopardizes our future workforce.

As we enter the active spring tornado season, let’s hope the sequester season ends, before the hurricane season begins.