Trump Ignites Scientific Integrity Scandal at NOAA

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Publication date: 
11 September 2019
Number: 
77

Multiple investigations are being opened into a NOAA statement criticizing a National Weather Service social media message that contradicted one from President Trump about the track of Hurricane Dorian. The White House reportedly pressured the agency via the Commerce Department to repudiate its forecasters' messaging.


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President Trump receives a briefing on Hurricane Dorian on Aug. 29.

President Trump receives a briefing on Hurricane Dorian on Aug. 29. Acting NOAA Administrator Neil Jacobs is standing just to the left of a forecast map that would later be marked up to include Alabama in its potential track. The chart to the right is an overview of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s planning for its potential response to the storm, including in Alabama.

(Image credit – Shealah Craighead / The White House)

An incident that began Sept. 1 with President Trump tweeting inaccurate information about Hurricane Dorian has spiraled into a major scientific integrity scandal.

Investigations are in the works at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, its parent agency the Department of Commerce, and in Congress to probe NOAA’s release of an unattributed statement on Sept. 6 backing Trump’s claims. That statement also criticized a contradictory tweet posted shortly after Trump’s by the Birmingham, Alabama, forecast office of the National Weather Service (NWS), which is part of NOAA.

According to reporting by the New York Times, NOAA issued its statement under pressure from Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who threatened to fire senior NOAA officials if they did not comply. Today, the Times reported that White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney asked Ross to tell the agency to negate its forecasters’ tweet, and the Washington Post reports Mulvaney did so at the behest of Trump himself, who denies it.

Although NOAA’s statement was widely condemned within the meteorology community, Acting NOAA Administrator Neil Jacobs did not disavow it yesterday when he addressed the annual meeting of the National Weather Association (NWAS) in Huntsville, Alabama. However, he also stressed his support for NWS’ work and said NOAA’s statement did not convey the agency’s understanding of its forecasters’ “good intent.”

Tweet pulls meteorologists into media maelstrom

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The National Weather Service’s predicted track of Hurricane Dorian when President Trump sent his tweet on Sept. 1.

The National Weather Service’s predicted track of Hurricane Dorian when President Trump sent his tweet on Sept. 1.

(Image credit – NWS)

In his Sept. 1 tweet, Trump warned that Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Florida would “most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated” by Dorian. At that point, the storm was approaching the Bahamas east of Florida and the most recent NWS forecasts showed a high probability it would eventually turn north, skirting the southeastern coast of the U.S.

The NWS’ Birmingham office tweeted 20 minutes later, “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from Dorian. … The system will remain too far east.” According to NWS Director Louis Uccellini, speaking a week later at the NWAS meeting, the office was responding to queries it was receiving and was unaware of Trump’s tweet.

Regardless, NOAA soon circulated a message directing NWS staff members to “stick with official National Hurricane Center forecasts if questions arise from some national level social media posts which hit the news this afternoon.” (The National Hurricane Center is a part of NWS.)

Media reports of the Birmingham office’s contradiction of Trump quickly proliferated, though, leading Trump to defend himself on Twitter on Sept. 2, referring to remarks he made later on Sept. 1 at the headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Before a briefing there, he had said Dorian "may get a little piece" of Alabama and that the state "could even be in for at least some very strong winds." During the briefing, Trump asked specifically about the updated track of the storm.

By this point Dorian had moved into an anticipated stall over the Bahamas, causing extreme devastation and loss of life.

Following further media coverage of Trump’s tweets, at a Sept. 4 press event he displayed an Aug. 29 forecast chart that had been altered with a marker, reportedly by him personally, to include Alabama in the possible track of the hurricane. The imagery led to a full-scale media blowup, including jokes on late-night talk shows and observations that misrepresenting government weather forecasts is illegal.

Meanwhile, continued criticism of Trump’s justifications led him to tweet several other, unaltered charts from late August showing low probabilities that portions of Alabama could have experienced some effects from the storm. On Sept. 5, the White House also released a statement from U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Peter Brown, a homeland security adviser, testifying that a briefing he gave to Trump the morning of Sept. 1 “included the possibility of tropical-storm-force winds in southeastern Alabama.”

Throughout the tumult, Trump has consistently portrayed the incident as a typical instance of conflict between him and hostile media outlets. His re-election campaign struck a similar note, putting custom Donald J. Trump markers up for sale on its website.

NOAA statement draws swift condemnation

On Sept. 6, the furor surrounding the president’s behavior escalated into a crisis of scientific integrity when NOAA released its statement criticizing the Birmingham office.

“The Birmingham National Weather Service’s Sunday morning tweet spoke in absolute terms that were inconsistent with probabilities from the best forecast products available at the time,” the statement asserted, pointing out that through Sept. 2 National Hurricane Center advisories had “clearly demonstrated” the possibility of tropical-storm-force winds in parts of Alabama.

According to anonymous sources who spoke to the New York Times, NOAA issued the statement after Secretary Ross instructed Administrator Jacobs, in the Times’ words, “to fix the agency’s perceived contradiction of the president.” When Jacobs objected, Ross threatened to fire politically appointed staff at the agency. A Commerce Department spokesperson denied that account to the Times.

NOAA’s statement prompted an immediate backlash on social media and in the press. Critics included former NOAA Administrators Kathy Sullivan, Jane Lubchenco, and James Baker; former NOAA Chief Operating Officer and Oceanographer of the Navy David Titley; and former NOAA General Counsel and Deputy Administrator Monica Medina  — all appointees in Democratic administrations. The statement was also condemned by former longtime civil service staff members, including former NWS Director Joe Friday and former National Hurricane Center Directors Bill Read and Max Mayfield.

Objections focused largely on the charge that NOAA had assailed the quality of its forecasters’ work to appease political sensitivities, thereby casting doubt on the integrity of the agency’s future communications, with potentially dangerous consequences. In many cases, these views were couched in harsh terms. Titley accused the agency’s leadership of “moral cowardice,” and Medina stated she would have resigned rather than “agree to let this BS go out.” Dan Sobien, the president of the NWS employees’ union, called NOAA’s statement “utterly disgusting and disingenuous.”

Investigations into political interference proliferating

As the backlash unfolded, authorities in the meteorological community have defended the Birmingham office’s actions. On Sept. 7, the American Meteorological Society released a statement calling NOAA’s criticism of the Birmingham office “unwarranted,” and stating the forecasters “should have been commended for their quick action based on science in clearly communicating the lack of threat to the citizens of Alabama.” (AMS is an AIP Member Society.)

NWS Director Uccellini was also unequivocal in his defense of the Birmingham office, saying at the NWAS meeting,

When the phones and the social media lit up about 10 a.m. Central Time on Sept. 1, they did what any office would do. With an emphasis they deemed essential to shut down what they thought were rumors, they quickly acted to reassure [their local] partners, the media, and the public with strong language that there was no threat of a tropical storm affecting the state and local communities at that time. And they did that based on past experiences to ensure clarity and impact.

Meanwhile, on Sept. 7, Commerce Department Inspector General Peggy Gustafson notified Administrator Jacobs that she was initiating an investigation into NOAA’s statement, writing that it called into question “the NWS’ processes, scientific independence, and ability to communicate accurate and timely weather warnings and data to the nation in times of national emergency.”

Then, on Sept. 8, NOAA’s acting chief scientist Craig McLean wrote in an internal email now posted on NOAA’s website that the agency’s statement “inappropriately and incorrectly contradicted” the Birmingham office. He continued, “My understanding is that this intervention to contradict the forecaster was not based on science but on external factors including reputation and appearance, or simply put, political.” McLean wrote he would be looking into the matter as a “potential violation” of NOAA’s scientific integrity policy, concluding, “I have a responsibility to pursue these truths. I will.”

While Jacobs had originally planned to use his NWAS address to discuss his efforts to improve NOAA’s weather forecasting capabilities through a planned collaborative center, he instead attempted to temper the dissatisfaction that had been building up over the preceding days. He said the purpose of NOAA’s statement had been to “clarify the technical aspects of the potential impacts of Dorian.” Although he did not discuss his communications with Secretary Ross, he told the audience, “There is no pressure to change the way you communicate forecast risk into the future. No one’s job is under threat: not mine, not yours.”

Today, Democratic leaders of the House Science Committee opened their own investigation into the matter, writing in a letter to Ross, “We are deeply disturbed by the politicization of NOAA’s weather forecast activities for the purpose of supporting incorrect statements by the president.”

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), the ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, has also announced she is calling for an oversight hearing on the matter. In a statement, she linked it to another controversial NOAA-related issue she is pressing on: the prospect that the administration’s push to roll out 5G telecommunications technologies could result in the quality of weather satellite observations being severely degraded.

About the author

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