Scott K. Johnson
President Trump not only refused to correct a tweet mistakenly stating that Alabama would “most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated” by Hurricane Dorian last September—he went as far as to display an official forecast map crudely modified with a black marker to defend his claim. The incident dragged the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration into the controversy.
The Birmingham office of the National Weather Service had quickly responded to questions by tweeting that Alabama was not forecast to be impacted. That in turn led to an unsigned statement released by NOAA leadership, intended to aid the White House in damage control. It read:
From Wednesday, August 28, through Monday, September 2, the information provided by NOAA and the National Hurricane Center to President Trump and the wider public demonstrated that tropical-storm-force winds from Hurricane Dorian could impact Alabama. This is clearly demonstrated in Hurricane Advisories #15 through #41, which can be viewed at the following link.
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 set off a storm within NOAA, including several complaints being filed to its scientific integrity officer. On Monday, the officer’s independent report was published. It finds violations of NOAA’s scientific integrity policy, but it recommends policy clarifications and better training rather than direct consequences for those involved in releasing the statement.
The report—prepared by a panel from the nonprofit National Academy of Public Administration—considered three allegations. It found that the statement “did not constitute scientific misconduct” or prevent scientists from communicating their work to the public. But it found that Acting Administrator Neil Jacobs and Director of Communications Julie Roberts did violate ethics rules by releasing the statement and that the Birmingham office should have been consulted beforehand.
The report also lays out an extremely detailed timeline of events leading up to the release’s publication, noting who met with whom, how the statement was written, and so on. But there are gaps in the report, which illustrates a key fact that had been revealed in news reporting: Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ office drove the drafting. Strictly speaking, the leadership at the Department of Commerce (which NOAA falls under) isn’t covered by NOAA’s scientific integrity policy, and that leadership declined to talk to the panel that prepared this report.
Both Neil Jacobs and Julie Roberts submitted letters defending themselves, which are included with the report. They both argue that they tried to change the statement—specifically by removing the sentence criticizing the Birmingham National Weather Service office—but that they were overruled by Commerce leadership and told to release the statement as is.
Jacobs is still the acting administrator of NOAA, as he hasn’t yet been confirmed by the Senate. Although he came from the private sector, he is a meteorologist and has received support from some scientists in NOAA or associated with the organization. And Jacobs claims his goal with the statement was to reconcile President Trump’s tweet with Birmingham’s tweet.
He says there was a small probability of some weather impacts in Alabama (rescuing an extremely charitable reading of the president’s tweet) but that the Birmingham office was also right to communicate that there was no risk of the dangerous weather conditions occurring closer to the hurricane. With Commerce leadership insisting on a statement fully vindicating and placating President Trump, it was difficult to thread that needle.
However, the report also includes a letter from NOAA Acting Chief Scientist Craig McLean, who submitted one of the initial complaints. In it, he colorfully expresses some frustration that the report recommends no consequences for anyone involved, which caught the eye of The Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang blog in its coverage.
McLean writes, “While there may be found causes of sympathy for the oppressed and meek subordinates of domineering autocratic ogres, I hardly can find sympathy in this scintilla of an argument for clemency. If not the single highest person in NOAA, who will stand for the Scientific Integrity of the agency and the trust our public needs to invest in our scientific process and products?”
The Atlantic hurricane season, by the way, is once again underway.