Thursday, June 20, 2013

Travel Restrictions, Federal Weather Colleagues, and Checkers

Let’s see……… Within the past year, we have witnessed one of the costliest weather disasters in American History, Superstorm Sandy. More recently, we have watched in horror as devastating tornadoes ravaged parts of tornado alley, namely the Moore and El Reno tornadoes (but others too).
I would like to draw your attention to a couple of things that both events had in common. First, both events were relatively well forecasted from a meteorological/technical standpoint.  Second, both events evoked vibrant and important discussions because of challenges related to communicating or warning for the hazard. In fact, NOAA modified its hurricane warning policy in the wake of Sandy (

Where am I a going with this?

The AMS 41st Conference on Broadcast Meteorology and the Second Conference on Weather Warnings and Communication ( are being held next week in Nashville, Tennessee.  Yet, many key federal meteorologists/professionals from NOAA, National Weather Service, and other agencies are unable to attend because of arcane travel restrictions, sequester, and budget stalemates. I am not making this up. The two co-existing conferences will discuss best practices, challenges, and opportunities for communicating weather threats to U.S. citizens. They will also bring together communication/media stakeholders and colleagues from the emergency management communities.  Yet, many of the very colleagues at the top of the “weather warning food chain” (NOAA, NWS personnel) may not be at the table.  Some are even a short car ride away and cannot attend.

I try to provide measured viewpoints on topics within our community, and at times, people disagree with me (not often I hope J). However, even my 6-year old son knows the value of attending his karate class or basketball practice to learn the newest moves or latest strategies. Within conference formats, stakeholders from the federal, academic, and private sectors convene, share knowledge, and advance best practices.  This is required more than ever.   For example, during the El Reno Tornado (Oklahoma), the National Weather Service clearly communicated a message to stay off of roads while messages from other sources may have given a different message. The intent of this commentary is not to blame any person or organization. Rather, my intent is to point out that our federal stakeholders cannot be on the sidelines for critical discussions that involve weather and public safety. Yet, with the shortsighted travel restrictions, this is exactly where they are.

Scientific conferences breed new ideas, new partnerships, and knowledge transfer. And by the way, it doesn’t always happen in the presentations so online/video alternatives are not always sufficient. Even within my career, conference interactions have led to new proposals, ideas, and connections. I am so fearful that a generation of early career professionals will not experience these opportunities. I am equally fearful that students (our “next generation” meteorologist workforce) will frown upon potential opportunities in the federal sector because of limitations on travel and access to scientific meetings.
I can’t imagine any successful organization, private or public, not wanting its employees to consume and integrate the most current/effective strategies, thinking or methods. Along the same lines, most successful businesses want to interact with their customers to understand their needs or preferences.  Scientific conferences or meetings with emergency managers provide that opportunity for federal meteorologists but they can’t go.

The Sandy Town Hall at the AMS Annual Meeting ( in Austin (2013) brought together an array of stakeholders with differing perspectives and opinions. I believe that it was a piece of the puzzle that led to changes in hurricane warnings that will benefit U.S. Citizens. At the meeting next week in Nashville, we will discuss critical communication and perception issues that have equal significance to the public. As I stated previously, many of the lives lost in recent tornadoes were likely not related to lack of technology/warning but to human decision/communications challenge.

I think of federal weather colleagues as the “red checkers.”   I think of conferences/meetings discussing critical weather knowledge, communications strategies, and warning methods as the “board.” There is no game without all of the checkers. 


  1. Very well stated. Budget issues are crippling science within NOAA and the NWS. If budget restraints continue to pigeonhole scientific, educational, and collaborative meetings like this, forecasts, warnings, and other products will suffer and be degraded.

  2. I've talked to quite a few people who are strongly in favor of slowing government employee travel. While I agree that taxpayer money should be spent thoughtfully and carefully, we should recognized what is being lost by not traveling. You cannot substitute a phone call or email with a face-to-face encounter. I've often explained this by pointing out the difference between telephoning my mother and sitting down with her over a cup of coffee. First, a phone call allows a conveyance of facts, "I feel fine" or "I'm seeing the doctor tomorrow." Sitting with her allows me to see the stress and concern on her face and her body language - a world of difference. It's similar in science. Sitting with someone allows us to toss around wild ideas, suggest new directions, pick up on new processes that we might miss in the literature or on the web. I pick up huge numbers of ideas at meetings. This is a huge unseen loss of ideas that can't be quantified.

  3. hey marshall, how come 3/4's of ams members are global warming skeptics? how come ams members are quitting because ams leadership refuses to allow discussion and debate of the lack of global warming?