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.
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