Last week, President Trump falsely claimed on Twitter that Hurricane Dorian was headed for Alabama. Unsurprisingly, this caused a great deal of alarm to those living in the state, so the National Weather Service (NWS)’s Birmingham branch sent out a tweet addressing the inaccurate statement.
"Alabama will NOT see any impacts from Dorian," they wrote. "We repeat, no impacts from Hurricane Dorian will be felt across Alabama. The system will remain too far east."
While NWS Birmingham was simply stating the facts and trying to reduce any unnecessary panic that might have been triggered by Trump’s tweet, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) sent out a memo to all National Weather Service staff on September 1. The memo, seen by The Washington Post, said the following.
"Ops Center, please send out a message to all (Regional Operations Centers) to alert all (Weather Field Offices) to only stick with official National Hurricane Center (NHC) forecasts if questions arise from some national level social media posts this afternoon. Staff should not provide any opinion about the national level posts and should direct any questions that cannot be satisfied to NOAA Public Affairs."
A NOAA meteorologist who chose to remain anonymous told the Post that the memo is “understood internally to be referring to Trump” and is a reaction to NWS Birmingham’s contradiction of his (incorrect and misleading) tweet.
The head of the NWS, Louis Uccellini, has since defended NWS Birmingham's tweet, saying that they “did what any office would do to protect the public,” notes the Associated Press.
Meanwhile, on September 6, the NOAA put out a public statement supporting the president, saying “Birmingham National Weather Service’s Sunday morning tweet spoke in absolute terms that were inconsistent with probabilities from the best forecast products available at the time.”
Dan Sobien, president of the NWS Employees Organization, strongly criticized the statement, tweeting: “Let me assure you the hard-working employees of the NWS had nothing to do with the utterly disgusting and disingenuous tweet sent out by NOAA management tonight.”
In addition to his unsubstantiated claims about the hurricane, Trump displayed an outdated map of the hurricane’s path last week at a press conference that appeared to have been drawn on with a Sharpie, making it appear as if Dorian was headed straight for Alabama. While it’s unclear whether Trump himself drew on the map, if he did it could be a federal crime. According to the Post, staff were told not to speak out about this incident on September 4.
“This is the first time I’ve felt pressure from above to not say what truly is the forecast,” the meteorologist told the Post. “It’s hard for me to wrap my head around. One of the things we train on is to dispel inaccurate rumors and ultimately that is what was occurring – ultimately what the Alabama office did is provide a forecast with their tweet, that is what they get paid to do.”
Meanwhile, a NOAA spokesperson said the memo was sent so that staff, and the agency in general, “could maintain operational focus on Dorian and other severe weather hazards without distraction.” However, NOAA's acting chief scientist is now set to investigate NOAA's response to Trump's tweets, as it may go against the agency's policies and ethics.
The whole debacle is concerning scientists since NWS Birmingham appears to have been targeted for simply providing accurate information about a dangerous hurricane. There is worry that if the NOAA is having to defend President Trump, people may lose trust in the agency and the weather forecasts it produces. And in a country that experiences potentially life-threatening weather events, that’s a big problem.
[H/T: The Washington Post]