Why Europe deserves your respect: They had first word on Hurricane Sandy

If you’re familiar with Republican talking points, then you understand that “Europe” has become political shorthand for “socialist, debt-ridden mediocrity.”

We must now make an exception for the art of weather forecasting. How did U.S. meteorologists first learn that Hurricane Sandy would make a deadly beeline for the Jersey shore? Socialist, debt-ridden Europe told them.

Specifically, while U.S. computer models still had Hurricane Sandy dying in the deep Atlantic, the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, located in the United Kingdom town of Reading, declared that Sandy was about to give the northeastern United States a devastating right hook.

President Barack Obama and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie meet with residents of a local neighborhood effected by superstorm Sandy on Wednesday in Brigantine, N.J. AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

President Barack Obama and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie meet with residents of a local neighborhood effected by superstorm Sandy on Wednesday in Brigantine, N.J. AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

European superiority is an accepted fact within the forecasting craft. Which is why – nine days ago — Marshall Shepherd pointed to the calculations coming out of Britain and told his students in Athens to keep their eyes open.

“It’s fairly well known that the European model is a bit better than our model because they use something called four-dimensional data assimilation in their weather model,” said Shepherd, a professor of geography and director of the atmospheric sciences program at the University of Georgia.

We’ll offer a translation later.

For the moment, what you need to know is that, in January, Shepherd will become president of the 15,000-member American Meteorological Society. Which means that both he and Hurricane Sandy will have significant parts to play in the next chapter of the ongoing debate on the size and role of our federal government.

While Republicans would prefer to discuss Benghazi, Sandy is all but certain to dominate the final days of the presidential contest. President Barack Obama will push photos of himself touring the devastation with a well-known Republican governor of New Jersey.

Mitt Romney will continue to fend off questions about that 2011 primary debate in which he suggested a return of disaster relief duties to the states, or privatizing the process. (The Federal Emergency Management Agency is “really important,” but states are “first responders,” a Romney aide said Thursday.)

But the debate over the reach of federal government won’t disappear after next Tuesday. Rather, it will ratchet up, as Congress turns its attention toward a lame-duck session and a “fiscal cliff” of automated tax hikes and spending cuts.

“When you have a Katrina, or you have a Sandy, that’s the time to get things done in the policy world,” Shepherd said. “With Sandy, I think it’s raising the right questions about the role of government.”

Budget cuts have already pushed the government-fueled weather forecasting industry to the edge, Shepherd said. The National Weather Service currently survives on less than $1 billion a year. Even deeper cuts are in the offing.

GOES-13, the satellite that monitors the eastern United States and the Caribbean “hurricane” basin, recently went offline. “We luckily had another out there, a spare,” Shepherd said.

But there are worries that the finite lifespans of aging satellites, coupled with constant budget cuts, could leave U.S. weather-watchers with a temporary blind spot, perhaps around 2017. “I tell people that weather satellites aren’t like a light bulb. We can’t just run down to Home Depot and replace it,” said the UGA professor, a former research meteorologist for NASA.

Then there’s the computer hardware, where European forecasters have their biggest advantage over their U.S. counterparts. Here in the U.S., forecasters use three-dimensional modeling for forecasts, Shepherd explained – snapshots of the atmosphere that are then analyzed for trends.

The acquisition of more expensive supercomputers has allowed Europeans to employ models that include constant updates – time – as a fourth dimension.

“It’s a national disgrace,” University of Washington meteorologist Cliff Mass charged earlier this year. U.S. firms are paying hundreds of thousands of dollars per year to obtain proprietary data from European forecasts, he reports.

Given that one-third of the American Meteorological Society’s members are federal workers, Shepherd is more careful with his words. “Our models are quite good. They’re world class. And they actually, in some weather systems, do just as good as the European model – in some cases better,” he said.

But not in the case of Hurricane Sandy.

More needs to be done, but Shepherd knows he’ll have to step carefully.

“I think you’ve got extreme positions on the left and the right,” he said. “There have to be limits on government. But states don’t launch satellites. States don’t have a national modeling center. States don’t build national networks of radar.

“There are some issues and some things that require a federal response. Hurricane Sandy, from its beginnings – the weather forecasting and monitoring – to its end – disaster response – has had a federal footprint all over it,” Shepherd said.

- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider

For instant updates, follow me on Twitter, or connect with me on Facebook.

35 comments Add your comment

Road Scholar

November 1st, 2012
7:30 am

We don’t need no stinkin’ science…is the conservative mantra. It makes their heads explode.

Policy coming out of Washington…in this political climate (no pun intended)? Surely you jest…..now let’s talk Military satellites…


November 1st, 2012
7:32 am


November 1st, 2012
7:33 am

[...] Atlanta Journal Constitution (blog)Why Europe deserves your respect: They had first word on Hurricane SandyAtlanta Journal Constitution (blog)Specifically, while U.S. computer models still had Hurricane Sandy dying in the deep Atlantic, the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, located in the United Kingdom town of Reading, declared that Sandy was about to give the northeastern … Source: Georgia [...]

Ostrich Racer

November 1st, 2012
7:48 am

“Four-dimensional data assimilation,” you say? Lies, I say! Lies from the pit of hell! Designed to convince me that I need to rely on the laws of physics and make rational determinations about the condition of the planet!


November 1st, 2012
7:59 am

Conservatives are conservatives, because it is easier. They don’t won’t to waste a lot of their time thinking – they leave that up to Rush, and Fox make-believe-news, who don’t waste a lot of their time gathering real news. It’s a lot more cost effective to just make it up – especially, when your audience is blissfully ignorant, and have no desire to change.

Moon Mullins

November 1st, 2012
8:03 am

You’ve got too many dimensions on this ol’ flat earth. If you don’t believe me, just ask the Texas School Book Commission. It’ll be in the textbooks your kids have. Just wait and see.

Libruls make thangs to dang complicated!

Travis McGee

November 1st, 2012
8:06 am

“Man is a rational animal — so at least I have been told. Throughout a long life, I have looked diligently for evidence in favor of this statement, but so far I have not had the good fortune to come accross it.” ~ Bertrand Russell


November 1st, 2012
8:18 am

What stands out like a sore thumb, for any fool willing to observe, is the difference between Sandy hitting the Jersey Shore and Katrina hitting the New Orleans 9th Ward. The difference is not one of wealth, or race, or geography. The difference is leadership. Not just any old leadership but of government getting to work to solve problems of the citizens in time of distress and destruction.

Two men, opposites in every way, doing their “of the people, by the people and for the people” jobs. One fat and one slim, one white and one black, one conservative and one liberal, one Republican and one Democrat, one Governor and one President each putting aside all the differences for the good of their constituents.

Governor Chris Christy saying. “I don’t give a damn about politics” and President Barak Obama saying, “the election can wait until next week”. Both doing what Congress can not and will not do. Both doing what their respective political parties can not and will not do. Both doing what Talk Radio and the Liberal Press can not and will not do. Both being and doing what is the American Way of government. Both serving the citizen’s best interest.

If any good can come from the disasters, it should be the demand of the citizens, taxpayers, voters, working and unemployed, teachers, preachers and “bakers, lawyers and Indian Chiefs”; that elected officials do the job they were elected to do by first putting aside anything (or anyone) who would interfere with the American Way of serving the citizens first, last and only. And if they can not for any reason accomplish this with a matter of thirty days, they should resign in the disgrace they have themselves perpetuated. Failing therein, they should be recalled, impeached and convicted of treason and shot. Beginning with City Counsels, then State Legislatures, and then Congress right on up the line.


November 1st, 2012
8:20 am

After all conservatives are evil, and libs are always wonderful and caring…..tolerance once again on display for the hypocricy that it really is


November 1st, 2012
8:31 am

Even European blind squirrels find a nut every once in a while…. just saying.


November 1st, 2012
8:33 am

Well said, WAW. I know it’s a temporary lull in the insanity, but I suspect both men will carry the experience of cooperation with them, and be less likely in the future to resort to bashing the other side as a habit.


November 1st, 2012
8:42 am

Mr. Shepherd, UGA scientist? Make one mighty proud. I wonder what kind of intelligent conversation he could have with Rep. Broun, who I believe would be his representative?


November 1st, 2012
8:44 am

Of course, Mr. Broun is a doctor and, technically a scientist. I wish we could understand where he gets his ideas.

Veteran Observer

November 1st, 2012
8:54 am

WAW, we will begin the process this Tuesday that you advocate by cleansing the White House of a president who has failed due to lack of leadership and experience!


November 1st, 2012
8:58 am

Missing from Jim’s discussion is any mention of why the weather service budget was cut. It’s not because conservatives don’t want a better system for forecasting, its because all the federal money has been spent many times over on other things like entitlement programs. Something has to get trimmed and its things like the weather service that have to go to allow for the continued crazy borrow and spend politics. Counter to Jim’s cartoon view of them, conservatives would gladly fund things that only the federal government can do like defense and yes, even weather forecasting. And there would be plenty of money for it if the federal government would spend less on programs better left to the states and private institutions. How much will the Obama change in work requirements for welfare cost? A change that was not needed and never put before congress. As more and more welfare recipients find out looking for and accepting work is no longer a requirement, fewer will work and more will be spent on benefits. Do you think that might fund a new weather sat? And that is not cutting welfare, just a choice about policy.


November 1st, 2012
9:07 am

“Obama change in work requirments” ask the Republican governors that asked him to do it.

Oblame Obama

November 1st, 2012
9:13 am

Alan…well said. Maybe US is falling behind Europe in weather forecasting because Oblamey is spending money on handouts and welfare and not on education. Maybe if our students did better in math and science we could have better forecasts. The European weather forecasters use the same data from OUR orbiting satellites but are better at math and science and use the information more accurately. Perhaps we should limit the number for foreign students that attend our colleges and then return to their country to apply this knowledge. Perhaps it is time for America first and stop all of Oblamey’s wastefull spending.

Curious 1

November 1st, 2012
9:17 am

Amen to you WAW! AMEN!


November 1st, 2012
9:22 am

somtimes you just can’t fix stupid……go to airport get on a plane and go live in Europe because you like it so much. Our problems are solved and you will be in a happy socialist state and take the rest of Atlanta with you!

An observer

November 1st, 2012
9:25 am

More America must be best at everything from Mr Galloway. What is wrong about Europe having better models than the US? After all, they are first world countries like we are. May be it is more cost effective to obtain our weather forecasts from Europe than to spend our money on a second best product produced in the US. If we are willing to buy a Mercedes Benz made in Europe, why not buy our weather from the also? We are one interdependent world, and with much weather prediction being based on satellite data available to all we need to give up on the idea that Americans are or should be superior o everyone on everything.


November 1st, 2012
9:38 am

And when our weather satellites fail, who is going to put new ones in orbit?

Answer – the government, but not ours – the Russian government! :(

Why? Because President “Bronco Bamma” has decided NASA’s days are over. :(

How are we ever going to send men to Mars or launch a Starship Enterprise “Seek out new worlds and to go where no man has gone before”?


November 1st, 2012
9:42 am


Try saying “want to” instead of “won’t to”

My God!! Where were you taught English?


November 1st, 2012
9:46 am

I believe I could just about make it on ” less than $1 billion a year”, myself. :)

Madge From Accounting

November 1st, 2012
9:50 am

..now let’s talk Military satellites…

Star Wars!!! – that’ where our money for satellites went!! (Anyone seen any missiles being shut down lately?)

Road Scholar

November 1st, 2012
9:52 am

Veteran Observer: Funny name since you have ignored President Obama’s leadership skills, which have been amplified lately because of Hurricane Sandy. Or do you favor Etch a Sketch Romney whose positions are as firm as quick sand?

Alan and Oblame Obama: Boo Hoo! We don’t need no stinkin’ entitlement programs…like tax cuts for the rich, Gobs of deductions for businesses and the rich and those “Foreign” students. Want better math scores? Work at it instead of saying “It’s HHHHaaaaarrrrrdddd!” Stop rewarding the kids for mediocrity!


November 1st, 2012
9:59 am

In 2012 Hartsfield-Jackson handled more than 2,500 arrivals and departures, bringing more than 250,000 passengers through the airport on an average day. Some of these are to Europe so if you like Europe so much I’m sure you can find a flight. Delta would be happy to help you.


November 1st, 2012
10:01 am

Only a billion a year. My God, how do they exist. You do realize that that is enough revenue to support 6-10,000 employees in the private sector? I’m not sure what they all do but it seems you could probably reorganize their organization and find a way to fund R&D with that level of funding. Actually, their budget does request 26.9 million for THEIR share of a 4 dimensional product in addition to another 11 million for new computing hardware so they seem to have it covered in the 1 billion.


November 1st, 2012
10:18 am

Great – now we don;t know how to do weather, either. Obama’s fault.


November 1st, 2012
10:21 am

Well good for Europe. At least they have one “model” that works, because it sure isn’t their business vs. social model. What you’re describing is like looking through 3 bags of garbage and finding a penny. “Obama’s leadership”–now there’s an oxymoron.


November 1st, 2012
10:36 am

Jim, forgot to tell you that I did get a good laugh from the title of your post.

DJ Sniper

November 1st, 2012
10:52 am

It’s so funny to see people’s underwear get twisted in knots at the suggestion that another country is better at something than America is. Let’s face it; America could stand to learn something from other countries from time to time.

Now let me sit back and watch to see who will either question my patriotism or tell me to book a one way ticket out of town.


November 1st, 2012
11:09 am

Oh, Alan, I’m so disappointed that you keep repeating GOP talking points. http://www.thenation.com/blog/169606/even-gop-guvs-admit-romneys-welfare-ads-are-false#.
” Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval were among five governors who sought flexibility for the states on alternative ways to achieve the law’s goal of moving recipients from welfare to work. In July, the Obama administration offered states the opportunity to receive a waiver from the 1996 law’s work participation requirements under the condition that more recipients find jobs. If not, they said, the waivers will be denied or rescinded.”
“However, in 2005 Romney, along with 28 other Republican governors, signed a letter asking for waivers from federal welfare requirements to allow states greater “flexibility.”

Read more: http://dailycaller.com/2012/08/07/romney-who-gave-free-cars-to-welfare-recipients-fends-off-hypocrisy-charges-after-attack-on-obama/#ixzz2Az1r9MMl
So, which Willard will you be voting for? The one that asks for greater state flexibility or the one that demands that states adhere to federal welfare eligibility standards? Hard to know which one would turn up to take the oath, isn’t it? He’s been pro-choice before, do you think he could change his mind again? He insisted he have a caduceus included in his official portrait as Governor, because he was so proud of Romneycare, put it right under the picture of his wife. I guess he got jealous when Obama copied it and people started calling it Obamacare, ’cause now he hates it. I guess the rest of the nation doesn’t deserve what those elitist Bay Staters. (JK)


November 1st, 2012
11:13 am

The Boston Herald reported in 2011 that under Romney’s free car program, “the state paid out one year’s insurance, inspection, excise tax, title, registration, repairs and a AAA membership for cars that were donated to welfare recipients.”

“[T]hose who lost their jobs and ended up back on welfare were allowed to keep their free wheels,” said the report.

The car program cost taxpayers $400,000 in 2006, the Herald reported, but was defended by a Romney spokesman who said it saved the state $1 million over three years by reducing dependence on welfare.

“It sounds like a program that President Obama would come up with,” Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips told the Herald last November.

Read more: http://dailycaller.com/2012/08/07/romney-who-gave-free-cars-to-welfare-recipients-fends-off-hypocrisy-charges-after-attack-on-obama/#ixzz2Az5D4TAh


November 1st, 2012
1:16 pm

‘federal money has been spent many times over on other things like entitlement programs. Something has to get trimmed and its things like the weather service that have to go to allow for the continued crazy borrow and spend politics’

the noise. the noise. There’s not a republican or democrat with the courage to tackle the real spending problems and do so in a way that the middle class doesn’t scream. It is possible, but not an instant fix. We have no patience. The Ryan type plans are calamity and the Romney “dump big bird” platitudes are empty.