September 11, 2019

Weather Forecasts Were Under Attack Well Before Trump. Fighting Back Is Long Overdue.

It’s been a heck of a couple of weeks for meteorologists. Expert forecasters had to juggle the precise path of a category five hurricane while the President of the United States led a bizarre campaign to undermine those very forecasts to avoid admitting he made a mistake on Twitter. The deep mistrust sowed in forecasts and forecasters in recent days will take years to undo, but don’t for a second think this eroding trust is a new phenomenon. It’s been stewing for years, and we’re all worse for it.

The National Hurricane Center accurately predicted the path of category five Hurricane Dorian as it came perilously close to Florida, nailing almost a week out that the storm's destructive core would curve within a hundred miles of the Florida coast. Dorian’s forecast path was one of the highest-stakes forecasts in recent years, and it’s a coup of both meteorology and human forecasting that they successfully predicted the path of a scale-topping hurricane.

A Mistake Becomes The Government Line

Not everyone appreciated the forecasting success. We’re all familiar with the flap about Hurricane Dorian “threatening” Alabama. The president tweeted on Sunday, September 1 that Alabama would “most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated” by Hurricane Dorian, even after expert forecasters had ruled out impacts to Alabama.

The statement drew a mixture of confusion and anger from meteorologists, who correctly pointed out that the weekend forecast updates spared Alabama from any of the storm's hazards. 
The official forecast for Hurricane Dorian at the time of Donald Trump's first "Alabama" tweet on September 1, 2019. | NOAA/NHC

The president reportedly received hourly hurricane updates on the golf course over the weekend, which likely kept him aware of the forecast keeping Dorian east of Florida. The map above shows the forecast from Sunday morning when Trump sent his first "Alabama" tweet.

Trump, who would legally change his name to Donall if he spelled it wrong to avoid having to admit an error, didn’t take kindly to the corrections in the days that followed. The president kept doubling-down on the mistake with increasing intensity in order to save face.

During a public Oval Office briefing on Wednesday, September 4, the president displayed an outdated forecast from August 29 to justify his tweet from September 1. Trump had drawn on the map with a Sharpie to falsely extend the cone of uncertainty to include a portion of Alabama, a transparent attempt to justify his false tweet.

The falsely altered map drew even more intense criticism, and the president's one-off mistake turned into a full-blown Thing. Enraged by the added criticism of his falsified map, Trump tweeted an even older computer model image to justify his warning to Alabama, then commanded an adviser to release a statement that the president’s false claims weren’t false at all.

Again not satisfied with the intensifying criticism, the White House Chief of Staff reportedly ordered the Secretary of Commerce to threaten to fire top officials at NOAA if they didn’t issue a statement refuting a tweet from the National Weather Service office in Birmingham, Alabama, which accurately said their state would “NOT see any impacts from #Dorian."

NOAA's subsequent unsigned statement throwing their own forecasters under the bus to satisfy the president was widely derided, galvanizing support among meteorologists to call out the administration for warping the weather to suit the president's political needs.

It's Transparently Ridiculous

It’s all absolutely ridiculous, and what stings the most is that it’s so transparently ridiculous.
If the expert meteorologists at the National Weather Service can’t speak authoritatively on a major weather event because it might upset the fragile sensibilities of those in charge, then we’re longer lost as a functioning country than anyone cares to admit.

The weird defenses and justifications we’ve seen over the last week are just as concerning as the bad information itself. We all know what’s going on. We all know what happened. Contrary to every principle that's supposed to guide government officials in the United States, the president successfully mobilized the executive branch to lie about weather forecasts in order to defend a single incorrect tweet despite the fact that they all knew it was the wrong thing to do.

This is a protracted struggle to never admit a mistake. Saying “oops” is a weakness. If the facts don’t conform to what you said, just issue threats and make stuff up until people are too confused to tell the difference.

No amount of days-old backfilling can change the fact that there was no threat to Alabama by the time Trump tweeted on September 1, much less the state at risk of being “hit (much) harder than anticipated.”

Weather Has Been Under Attack For A While

We’re rapidly losing our ability to use basic reasoning to determine what’s real and what’s not.  Dorian was not a threat to Alabama on September 1. But after just one week of this partisan jackhammering, you could probably run a national poll and find a double-digit response who would all swear Alabama was in grave danger.

This didn’t start with Trump. This didn’t even start with Twitter. The nonsense we’re living through right now is why I’ve expended great effort trying to debunk conspiracy theories and blatantly fake weather forecasts put out by attention-seeking weenies.

Conspiracy theories, made-up weather forecasts, and the instinct to go full-hype on social media has primed people for the reality-adjacent bizarroworld we’re living in right now.

I’ve argued for years that conspiracy theories about the weather—kooky as they sound—will become extremely dangerous when enough people believe them for a long enough time. We seem to have reached that tipping point.

The wispy clouds behind cruising jetliners aren't weather- or mind-controlling chemicals. Antennas can't control the weather. Doppler radar dishes can’t control the weather. Meteorologists don't fake weather forecasts to scare people or drive up grocery sales. Meteorologists don’t rip their forecasts from a computer—oh, and they’re right a heck of a lot more than just half the time.

All that stuff is really easy to believe once you’ve lost trust in all things outside of your bubble. Once you’re convinced that the world around you is all an elaborate play and everything is controlled by just a couple of people, it doesn’t take much of a spark to flip you out. We’ve seen too many people, intoxicated by conspiracy theories, decide to take up arms and act on their twisted view of reality.

The vast majority of people who subscribe to those outlandish ideas believe it peacefully; or, as peaceful as you can be while screaming at nonbelievers via email. But words alone can cause serious damage.

If someone has lost so much trust in the world that they believe the government controls the weather, what are they telling their friends and family about the forecast for Hurricane Dorian? How many Facebook pages out there have hundreds of thousands of gullible fans lapping up the idea that an antenna array in Alaska can create storms on command? How often do you hear a cashier at the grocery store or a colleague at work brush off a weather forecast because “they’re always wrong” or “they don’t know what they’re talking about?” Yes, that banal small talk does damage after a while.

It’s not just the conspiracy theories we have to worry about. Fake and misrepresented weather forecasts are also a huge problem on social media. Have you ever seen a weather model image on Facebook that showed an enormous blizzard or hurricane racing toward a populated area in a week or two?

There’s a patchwork cottage industry of amateur weather enthusiasts and less-than-level meteorologists looking for clicks who all gleefully share horrifying and outlandish weather model runs on social media. Some folks even flat-out issue fake "forecasts" for clicks—this was such a big issue at one point that the NWS had to issue a statement in June 2011 calling out a single weather hoaxer by name to distance themselves from his faux-official products. And, no, it wasn’t Donald Trump.

We’ve been dealing with this trend of—apologies for the term—fake weather news for years. It’s not a new­ thing. It’s been a long struggle and it’s not one easily won in the social media era. You can’t stop Tri-County Weather Authority 3000 from screaming that the entire tri-county area is going to get buried in a blizzard that was never going to happen. You can’t stop Chief Meteorologist Chad Cheesebog from sharing a weather model showing a 934 mb hurricane hitting New York City in 15 days.

But we can call it out.

Speak Out

The one thing we can do to preserve the character and integrity of weather forecasting, the expert scientists who issue those forecasts, and the very foundation of the science of meteorology itself, is to speak up and fight back. This is no time for “stick to the weather” or “I don’t really like politics.” If you haven’t felt the pain or seen an attack on your little slice of life yet, trust me—it’s coming. I can only wonder how many proudly apolitical meteorologists never envisioned having to speak out against the president's statements before last week.

It’s on you to call out nonsense when you see it. Put people on the spot for peddling fake or inaccurate weather information. Call out inappropriate use of weather models on social media. Don’t politely nod when someone at the grocery store says “weathermen get paid to be wrong all the time.” Don’t stay out of the fray when the president draws on a hurricane forecast to make himself look right. If the president can successfully try to bully and bury official weather forecasts to fit his worldview, how can anyone ever trust a forecast again? 

Meteorologists have done a fantastic job of pushing back against the administration's political meddling since this whole ordeal began. A top scientist at NOAA denounced the statement issued by the agency's political leadership and vowed to launch an investigation. NWS Director Dr. Louis Uccellini strongly defended his agency's forecasters in a speech at this week's National Weather Association's annual meeting in—go figure—Alabama. Just about every meteorologist and weather enthusiast with an audience spoke out against the nonsense and held nothing back speaking to those who tried to defend it. 

That trend needs to continue. We need to make it loud and clear that you cannot mess with the integrity of weather forecasts, because once that trust is gone, it's gone for a generation. Lives are at stake when people start to believe that there are different versions of reality and the warnings and statements of expert meteorologists are issued under duress or with an ulterior motive. The only way the integrity of weather forecasting can withstand political spin and deep mistrust is if we stand up and speak out. Anything less is unacceptable.

[Top Image: Twitter/@WhiteHouse]

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I graduated from the University of South Alabama in 2014 with a degree in political science and a minor in meteorology. I contribute to The Weather Network as a digital writer, and I've written for Forbes, the Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang, Popular Science, Mental Floss, and Gawker's The Vane. My latest book, The Skies Above, is now available. My first book, The Extreme Weather Survival Manual, arrived in October 2015.