Among federal government agencies, the National Weather Service is among our favorites: It's one of the few remaining government agencies that we can call up and get a knowledgeable source on the other end who's willing to offer useful information without the intercession of a public information officer. (If a public information officer were involved, we'd eventually be able to get accurate information about the weather two weeks ago.)
It also was among the agencies we thought would be least likely to get involved in the cross-hairs of a political firestorm: Weather is weather, right?
Enter President Donald Trump and the now-infamous black Sharpie.
The president has been roasted, and justifiably so, for his attempts to justify his claim that Alabama "would most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated" by Hurricane Dorian by showing an obviously doctored map. The incident, which offers additional proof of the president's inability to admit to any sort of mistake, has made for great fodder for late-night TV comedians.
But the incident also says something serious about the administration's general disregard for science and the work of scientists. And it shows how poisoned politics has seeped into the work of a agency whose work is essential to the daily lives of many Americans.
You've likely been following the furor over the Sharpie incident, but you might not be aware of how it's played out inside the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agency which includes the National Weather Service.
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Here's a brief refresher: On Sept. 1, the president issued a tweet in which he said that parts of Alabama could be impacted by Dorian. The problem was, of course, that the president was wrong. The National Weather Service office in Birmingham then sent out its own tweet, saying (correctly) that Alabama would “NOT see any impacts from the hurricane.”
As The Washington Post reported over the weekend, that tweet from the weather service office in Birmingham drew a response from NOAA brass: They sent out a email directive to staff members to “only stick with official National Hurricane Center forecasts if questions arise from some national level social media posts which hit the news this afternoon.” They were also told not to “provide any opinion.”
“This is the first time I’ve felt pressure from above to not say what truly is the forecast,” a meteorologist told the Post. "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.”
It gets worse.
Last week, as you know, the president attempted to defend his original tweet, displaying a hurricane map from Aug. 29 that had been modified with a half-circle hand-drawn with a Sharpie around Alabama, beginning the incident now dubbed as "Sharpie-gate."
That was bad enough. But then NOAA brass issued another statement to staffers, warning scientists and meteorologists not to speak out on the matter. Then, last Friday, NOAA officials released another statement, attributed to an unnamed agency spokesperson, supporting Trump's claims on Alabama and criticizing the agency's Birmingham meteorologists for speaking in absolutes.
That opened the floodgates, if you'll allow us another weather metaphor: Scientists both inside and outside the federal government lambasted the agency for bending to political expediency. Said Oregon State University professor Jane Lubchenco, a former administrator of NOAA under President Barack Obama: “This looks like classic politically motivated obfuscation to justify inaccurate statements made by the boss. It is truly sad to see political appointees undermining the superb, lifesaving work of NOAA’s talented and dedicated" career servants.
But for those who have watched this administration routinely discount and undermine the work of scientists, this isn't that much of a surprise. And that's the saddest part of all. (mm)