EDITORIAL: Don’t mess with our weather info

We complain about it incessantly, but we can’t get enough of it.

We hate the weather much of the time, but we love hearing about it all of the time.

We absorb weather information like sponges, and we talk about it, second guess it, curse it, cheer it and in many ways live by it.

We are so well informed by this era’s numerous weather information sources that mundane conversations are sprinkled with arcane meteorological terms like “wall clouds” and “occluded fronts.”

 We get weather alerts on our smart phones and tap weather apps to track thunderstorms, check snowfall amounts and see what the temperature in our hometown will be at 8 a.m. tomorrow.

For most of this, we can thank the National Weather Service. It is a government agency, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and an authentic and wholly positive example of our tax dollars at work.

And that work is crucial, affecting the safety of the populace, the health of the economy—industries, farmers and mariners rely on the NWS—and the security of the nation.

The work of the National Weather Service is applied science—disciplined, rigorous and objective—that needs to be done free of the corrupting influence of politics.

Which is why Sharpiegate, though it sounds like a joke, is not funny. There is nothing humorous about forcing a government agency to issue false information.

President Donald Trump tweeted to his 64 million Twitter followers that Alabama and other coastal states “most likely would be hit much harder than anticipated” by hurricane Dorian. The Birmingham, Ala., station of the National Weather Service corrected the president with a Twitter announcement that Alabama would “not see any impacts from Dorian.”

It was not a big deal at this stage. The president is infamous for misstating facts in his daily burst of Twitter commentary. His supporters forgive him for it. Others are inured to it as an unremarkable fact of life in the Trump administration.

But then the hurricane gaffe became a big deal, and a humorous one at that, when in attempt to justify his faulty forecast Trump displayed a map showing the hurricane’s track that looked official except for a crudely drawn outline that included Alabama in the path of the storm. The line was drawn with a Sharpie, the brand of felt-tip marking pen the president uses to produce his famously outsized signature on documents.

Sharpiegate was born.

A fair amount of mockery ensued, much to the distress of the White House, which ordered Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to do something to change the impression that the weather agency had contradicted the president. What he did was no laughing matter. According to numerous reports, Ross threatened to fire top officials of NOAA if they didn’t issue a statement affirming that the president’s weather forecasting was correct.

A NOAA statement saying the president was right about the hurricane and the NWS was wrong soon appeared, unsigned, with no attribution to anyone at the agency.

High-ranking officials of NOAA and NWS have since set the record straight, pointing out that the Birmingham office issued its perfectly accurate announcement that the storm was not a threat to Alabama only after hearing from many Alabamans who feared they would have to evacuate or take other measures in response to a prediction, from the president of United States no less, that they were in in danger from the hurricane.

The director of the NWS praised the Birmingham weather scientists for “upholding the integrity of the forecasting process.”

Three former NOAA administrators wrote in a newspaper op-ed piece: “Even a hint that a forecast or a warning was influenced by politics would undermine the public’s trust and the ability to respond quickly and effectively under potentially life-threatening conditions. Weather forecasting should never be political.”

Trying to make it political was not the brightest decision to come out of the Trump White House. The most likely response from most Americans is: Don’t mess with our weather information!



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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
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