NOAA bureaucrats attempt to muzzle National Hurricane Center director

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Back in the office after some time on the road and with a lot of posting to do, starting here:
High-level officials in the NOAA/National Weather Service reprimanded the new director of the National Hurricane Center for his comments about how the failure of NOAA to plan expeditiously for replacing the QuikScat satellite could diminish the accuracy of hurricane forecasts. “There is no question they are trying to muzzle me,” said NHC director Bill Proenza.

The Miami Herald reported on June 16 (“Candid storm chief gets a lashing”):

Superiors in the National Weather Service chastised the new director of the National Hurricane Center for his comments about a failing satellite and the NOAA’s spending priorities.

The new director of the National Hurricane Center, an outspoken critic of his superiors since he took over in January, charged Friday night that they are trying to muzzle him and could be setting him up for termination.

Bill Proenza said the acting director of the National Weather Service, Mary Glackin, visited his office in West Miami-Dade Friday and handed him a three-page letter of reprimand.

‘‘I don’t think they can pull the rug out from under me right now,’’ Proenza said, “but there is no question they are trying to muzzle me.’‘

Proenza has served since January 2007 as director the the National Hurricane Center, which is part of the National Weather Service, which in turn is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an agency of the Department of Commerce. One of Proenza’s main concerns has been an aging weather satellite called QuikScat, launched in 1999 and long past its designed lifetime. The Miami Herald reported:

No replacement currently is in development and the loss of QuikScat could diminish the accuracy of some hurricane forecasts by up to 16 percent, Proenza and other experts have said.

Glackin’s letter, obtained by The Miami Herald, charges that Proenza made statements that “may have caused some unnecessary confusion about NOAA’s ability to accurately predict tropical storms.’‘

In the letter, Glackin also told Proenza that his actions had been “requiring me to spend a disproportionate amount of time to correct any confusion; causing undue concern and misunderstanding among your staff; and taking valuable time away from your public role . . .’‘

Several forecasters and other staffers at the hurricane center have told The Miami Herald that they fully support Proenza, and his comments have earned compliments from many emergency managers and others.

Proenza said he shared the letter with members of his staff Friday.

‘‘I felt like I could not have any secrets from my staff,’’ he said. “They were simply outraged.’‘

It was not the first time he has been disciplined since taking over the center.

Proenza said that on April 13, he was told by Louis Uccellini, a high-ranking weather service official: “You better stop these QuikScat [and other] complaints. I’m warning you. You have NOAA, DOC [the U.S. Department of Commerce] and the White House pissed off.’‘

Asked about his next move, Proenza said Friday night:

“I’m not going to be silenced. I know my responsibilities and I know what I have to do.’‘

Mary Glackin will be the acting director of the National Weather Service until on September 2, when Jack Hayes takes over as the new NWS director.

We know Mary Glackin, who has been the NOAA principal agency representative to the U.S. Climate Change Science Program, and we are disappointed to see her taking this path, though we can’t say we are surprised.

On the issue of the QuikScat satellite, the Associated Press reported on June 12 (“U.S. hurricane satellite could fail at any time—Loss would reduce accuracy of landfall predictions; replacement now 2016”):

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 percent and three-day forecasts by 16 percent, which could translate into miles of coastline and the difference between a city being evacuated or not….

“We would go blind. It would be significantly hazardous,” said Wayne Sallade, emergency manager in Charlotte County, which was hit hard by Hurricane Charley in 2004….

Dr. Jeff Masters noted in his Weather Underground blog on June 18:

Proenza has been particularly outspoken in his desire to see a replacement for the aging QuikSCAT satellite, which measures surface winds over remote ocean areas, and has been credited with improving 72-hour hurricane track forecasts by 16%. His comments may be having an effect. On May 24, the improved Hurricane Tracking and Forecasting Act of 2007 (Senate Bill S. 1509) was introduced before the Senate. The bill, introduced by Sen. Landrieu, D-LA, and co-sponsored by John Kerry and Florida’s two senators, asks for $375 million to build a replacement for the QuikSCAT satellite. Bravo to Mr. Proenza for speaking out on this important issue!

We agree with that, and wish that more senior executives in federal science positions would show more push back on administration policies and priorities.

Some excepts from the “findings” section of S. 1509:

(5) The QuikSCAT satellite was built in just 12 months and was launched with a 3-year design life, but continues to perform per specifications, with its backup transmitter, as it enters into its 8th year—5 years past its projected lifespan.

(6) The QuikSCAT satellite provides daily coverage of 90 percent of the world’s oceans, and its data has been a vital contribution to National Weather Service forecasts and warnings over water since 2000.

(7) Despite its continuing performance, the QuikSCAT satellite is well beyond its expected design life and a replacement is urgently needed because, according to the National Hurricane Center, without the QuikSCAT satellite—

(A) hurricane forecasting would be 16 percent less accurate 72 hours before hurricane landfall and 10 percent less accurate 48 hours before hurricane landfall resulting in—

(i) with a 16 percent loss of accuracy at 72 hours before landfall, the area expected to be under hurricane danger would rise from 197 miles to 228 miles on average; and

(ii) with a 10 percent loss of accuracy at 48 hours before landfall, the area expected to be under hurricane danger would rise from 136 miles to 150 miles on average; and

(B) greater inaccuracy of this type would lead to more `false alarm’ evacuations along the Gulf Coast and Atlantic Coast and decrease the possibility of impacted populations sufficiently heeding mandatory evacuations.

The bill has been referred to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, which held a hearing today (June 28) on the NOAA FY 2008 budget request. E&E News PM reported (by subscription only) that, at the hearing, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), chairman of the space subcommittee,

pressed agency Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher on contingency plans for QuikSCAT.

“This little thing is like the Energizer Bunny. It keeps going and going,” Nelson said. “But we don’t know when it’s going to go on the blink. ... What is NOAA’s plan for the replacement of QuikSCAT?”

QuikSCAT—or the “Quick Scatterometer”—measures ground wind speeds, providing broader coverage than similar instruments carried by ocean buoys. The satellite’s data transmitter failed last year, and it now relies on a backup transmitter….

Replacing the satellite “as is” would take three to five years after NOAA decided on a launch vehicle, Lautenbacher said.

Nelson called that timetable unacceptable. “We’re in hurricane season 2007,” he said. “At the earliest, we could get money into [the fiscal 2008 budget] and then it would be another three to five years.

Lautenbacher said the agency was moving as quickly as possible and would lkely have a plan in place for the start of the fiscal 2009 budget cycle in February.

Referring to recent statements by National Hurricane Center director Proenza, E&E News reported:

Proenza’s comments set off a hail of action among lawmakers who represent Florida and the Gulf Coast, who have introduced bills in both chambers that would authorize NASA to design and launch a QuikSCAT replacement….

In the Senate, the full Commerce Committee plans a hearing on NOAA’s Earth-observing satellites, including QuikSCAT, on July 11.

Meanwhile, Nelson has taken issue with NOAA for what he has said are its attempts to “muzzle” Proenza, citing a letter the scientist received from the acting head of the National Weather Service, Mary Glackin.

“Shooting the messenger is not an acceptable response from those in positions of executive management in federal agencies,” Nelson said in a June 13 letter to Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, whose department is home to NOAA.

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