Sharpie-Gate Reaches Fever Pitch – Rightfully So

The media frenzy over the doctored Hurricane Dorian map reached new highs (or lows) after NOAA put out an unsigned statement on Friday night retracting a tweet that launched the whole debacle — the Birmingham local National Weather Service forecast office clarifying that the storm track would not impact Alabama.  It led to a downward spiral of Presidential map doctoring, successive tweets about the “FAKE NEWS” being wrong about the map being wrong (they weren’t), agency gag orders from political bosses, and unsigned statements disavowing the work of the agency scientists who know what they are talking about.  Agency morale is now suffering, according to news reports, and one former NOAA leader called it “the darkest day ever for leadership. Don’t know how they will ever look their workforce in the eye again. Moral cowardice.”  And hurricane season still has 2 months to go.

Why This Matters: When I (Monica) was at NOAA, less than 10 years ago we first began using Twitter in earnest as a communications tool,  and we urged the National Weather Service to start using it too.  We knew that it would be a really effective vehicle for quickly disseminating the latest information about storms, floods, hurricanes, blizzards, and other breaking weather news.  And it has been incredibly effective – especially in emergencies when it is critical for the public to have the most up to date information. The President broke the law when he doctored the map, and with the NOAA statement, the Administration may have “broken” the public’s faith in the agency that delivers those forecasts.  His supporters will believe that the President was protecting them — as he tweeted on Thursday that he was “with you all the way Alabama.” As if the folks at the National Hurricane Center and local National Weather Forecast office were not? By clarifying that the storm was not heading to Alabama (and note they did not mention the President’s mistaken statement in their tweet), the local forecast office did exactly what we needed them to do at that moment. They provided timely, clear and accurate information about the storm’s actual track.  And then they were ordered by their leaders never to do that again.  Shame on those leaders who put the President’s ego ahead of public safety.

Why Is It Against the Law to Alter a Forecast?

In the early days of weather forecasting, many “fake” reports of dangerous weather led to confusion by the public — they did not know what was true.  The Washington Post, in a detailed article, explained.

  • “In 1903, a top Weather Bureau official warned that false weather forecasts would cause both “public injury and discredit to the Weather Bureau,” which could lead Americans to ignore crucially important — even lifesaving — information. These dangers compelled Congress to pass the law making counterfeit forecasts illegal.”

Those words and the rationale for the law are just as true today, in fact.

Former NOAA and NWS Leaders React

  • Jane Lubchenco, NOAA administrator under President Obama, told The Washington Posts Capital Weather Gang via email: “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, life-saving work of NOAA’s talented and dedicated career servants.”
  • Joe Friday, the long-time and beloved former head of the National Weather Service wrote, “The recent communications by a ‘NOAA Spokesman’ which tried to rewrite history is deplorable. Chastising WFO [weather forecast office] Birmingham for correctly pointing out that there was no danger to Alabama was unconscionable.”

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