We are now into the second week of Donald Trump’s dumb tweet. I want to stop writing about this. You want to stop reading about this. And yet, because the president cannot be wrong, here we are, watching a federal agency rip apart at the seams.
The whole stupid event started September 1, when Trump erroneously tweeted that Alabama was among states that “will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated” by then-Hurricane Dorian. Alabama was never in any danger of serious impacts, particularly by the time of Trump’s tweet. The National Weather Service (NWS) office in Birmingham quickly responded by tweeting that there would be no impacts from Dorian on the state, and that should’ve been the end of that. Instead, there were more tweets, a fake forecast map, and according to new reporting from the New York Times, pressure for NOAA staff to fall in line.
The Times reports that Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, whose department oversees the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), threatened to fire some of the weather forecasting agency’s top employees the Birmingham tweet that contradicted the president. The news broke on Monday, a few days after NOAA put out an unattributed, feckless statement in support of Trump’s Alabama-related shenanigans around the Hurricane Dorian forecast. The whole thing has a soap opera quality to it, but it also shows the administration’s ever-expanding war on science now extends to the weather forecast.
Ross ordered the acting administrator of NOAA to issue a statement backing the president, the Times reported based on information from three unnamed sources. Neil Jacobs, the NOAA acting administrator, reportedly refused, which in turn allegedly prompted Ross to threaten firing him and other high-ranking political staff at NOAA. And thus, the agency farted out a weak, easily disproven statement late on Friday night.
That statement threw forecasters who were correct under the bus and undercut the core missions of the NWS and National Hurricane Center—both of which are housed under NOAA—to save lives.
The statement enraged many in the weather community who saw the forecast as above the political fray. And it appears NOAA’s top scientists are determined to get to the bottom of the bullshit and stand up for what’s right. On Monday, we got an answer on where some of NOAA’s top scientists stood. Craig McLean, the agency’s acting chief scientist, sent a letter to employees that was obtained by the Washington Post. Here’s what he had to say:
“The NWS Forecaster(s) corrected any public misunderstanding in an expert and timely way, as they should. There followed, last Friday, an unsigned news release from ‘NOAA’ that inappropriately and incorrectly contradicted the NWS forecaster. My understanding is that this intervention to contradict the forecaster was not based on science but on external factors including reputation and appearance, or simply put, political.”
McLean said he would investigate why the statement was put out and if it violated NOAA’s sterling scientific integrity policy (reader, it almost certainly did). That was followed by a speech at a major weather conference by National Weather Service Director Louis Uccellini, a guy who literally wrote the book on forecasting when it comes to snowstorms in the Northeast. Here’s what he had to say about the Birmingham NWS statement refuting Trump’s original Alabama tweet, per the Washington Post:
“They did what any office would do. With an emphasis they deemed essential, they shut down what they thought were rumors. They quickly acted to reassure their partners, the media and the public — with strong language — that there was no threat.”
During any weather event, forecast offices often have to contend with misinformation. For Dorian, they had to correct the president of the United States.
This whole thing comes across as incredibly childish and stupid (and make no mistake, it’s both those things), but beyond that, it’s dangerous as hell. The Trump administration has raced to politicize everything and undermine trust in institutions, but particularly so with science. We’ve seen them roll back all sorts of climate rules to enrich a few fossil fuel executives while putting millions of Americans at risk of worsening climate impacts and toxic air. For the administration’s efforts, people will almost surely get sick, lose property, and even die.
Now the race has begun at one of the most unpoliticized things imaginable: the goddamn weather forecast. How things play out in the coming days will go a long ways toward clarifying who’s a real one at NOAA and who’s all in for the race to the bottom.