Acting NOAA Head Tim Gallaudet Reflects on Agency Successes and Future Directions
Since his confirmation last October as deputy administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, former Oceanographer of the Navy Tim Gallaudet has been the agency’s top-ranking official and acting administrator while President Trump’s nomination of AccuWeather CEO Barry Myers has languished in the Senate.
Senate inaction on Myers has not held back Gallaudet from making ambitious plans to tap into the latest science and technology to advance NOAA weather and climate prediction capabilities. Buoyed by a 4 percent budget increase for NOAA in fiscal year 2018 appropriations, including a 7 percent increase for the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, Gallaudet has moved to ramp up investments in the agency’s capabilities, despite the Trump administration’s proposal to slash NOAA by double-digit percentages.
Last month, Gallaudet delivered the keynote address at the 2018 Washington Forum organized by the American Meteorological Society, an AIP Member Society, and afterwards he spoke with FYI about his vision for NOAA. The following draws from both his address and the interview.
Hurricane forecasting improvements a major NOAA focus
“[The] story of what NOAA’s been up to this year is a good one,” Gallaudet declared in his address. He pointed to the successful launch this March of GOES–S, the second in NOAA’s line of four next-generation geostationary satellites. The GOES launch follows the successful launch last November of JPSS–1, the agency’s first in its line of next-generation polar-orbiting satellites.
Gallaudet also highlighted improvements in forecasting and decision support services to emergency managers that NOAA provided during the 2017 hurricane season, remarking,
Even though it was the most damaging year in terms of hurricane property destruction — $306 billion across the U.S. — … we only saw a fifth the loss of life. … Hurricane track error was 25 percent lower than any previous season.
Gallaudet also touted the National Hurricane Center’s successful debut of its first-ever storm surge warnings as another example of the strides NOAA made during the 2017 hurricane season.
While these accomplishments have roots in previous administrations, Gallaudet said NOAA intends to accelerate such efforts. Earlier this year, Congress provided $100 million to NOAA in one-time disaster relief funding for hurricane observations and modeling improvements, which Gallaudet says he will spend in part on better sensors for the agency’s Hurricane Hunter aircrafts that fly into and over hurricanes.
Gallaudet also reported that NOAA plans to work with the Navy to deploy a fleet of unmanned underwater gliders along the southeastern coast of the U.S. and Gulf of Mexico to observe ocean temperatures at depth, which he said is key to predicting when hurricanes are set to intensify rapidly. Forecasters were caught off guard last year, he said, when Hurricane Harvey intensified from a gale into a hurricane in less than 24 hours in the Gulf of Mexico.
Gallaudet also spoke optimistically about longer-term hurricane forecasting improvements, noting the track accuracy of NOAA’s experimental global weather model, Finite Volume Cubed (FV3), outperformed European models for the major hurricanes that made landfall in the U.S. last year.
Gallaudet outlined to FYI his multi-pronged plan to build the next-generation global forecasting system that he says will enable the U.S. to regain world leadership in weather prediction by 2020. The plan, he said, involves “better observations, better high-performance computing, better data assimilation, and better [physics] code in the model.” In the same breath, he insisted,
We’re going to beat the Europeans.
NOAA following weather law ‘letter by letter,’ Gallaudet says
Gallaudet made clear that one of NOAA’s current top priorities is implementing the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act, which became law in April 2017. Arguing that its implementation augments NOAA’s goal “to minimize the impacts of severe weather and water in the U.S.,” he said NOAA is following the law “letter by letter.”
NOAA’s implementation of the law includes a renewed focus on better prioritizing its space-based observations systems. He said NOAA will put a greater emphasis on conducting quantitative studies to back up its decisions on pursuing future systems. The law also calls for a National Academies study, expected to launch later this year, on NOAA’s future satellite data needs, including an assessment of “unconventional approaches” to obtaining data.
Gallaudet said NOAA is examining alternatives to large satellite systems, citing microsatellites, CubeSats, and commercial data. He said the Commercial Weather Data Pilot Program the weather law authorized is moving “a little slower than we want,” due to the commercial market for radio occultation data not growing as quickly as expected. However, he urged patience, saying NOAA is taking time to evaluate the proper balance in its public-private partnerships and ensure new commercial data is improving model accuracy.
As an example of a successful public-private data partnership, Gallaudet highlighted the unmanned sea surface vehicles NOAA has leased and operated from the company Saildrone for several years now. He hinted that NOAA is “really going to get behind” this partnership model in its fiscal year 2020 budget submission.
With respect to the weather law’s provisions authorizing sub-seasonal to seasonal prediction, Gallaudet said the agency is doing a great deal in the area already, pointing to the climate.gov and drought.gov information portals. While noting the current model ensemble NOAA uses for sub-seasonal to seasonal prediction performs “fairly well,” he reported that improvements are “on the way.” In particular, NOAA is planning to couple the FV3 next-generation weather model with its Modular Ocean Model to enable accurate predictions beyond two weeks and as far out as one year, although he says an operational coupled model is still several years away.
Gallaudet argues Trump administration respects science
In February, the Trump administration proposed cutting NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research by 41 percent in fiscal year 2019, which if enacted would devastate many of NOAA’s laboratories, cooperative institutes, and competitive research grant programs.
When asked by AMS President Roger Wakimoto about NOAA’s partnership with the academic community, Gallaudet sought to reassure Wakimoto that it is “probably our strongest and most long-lasting partnership.” He also told FYI NOAA’s fiscal year 2018 budget increase restores extramural support to state and local stakeholders it had planned to cut, including Sea Grant and the cooperative institutes based at universities.
Asked what he would say to the scientists who are concerned the Trump administration does not respect science, Gallaudet replied, “No, it’s not true.” He pointed to NOAA’s scientific integrity policy and added he had recently sent an all-hands email to employees reinforcing those policies and encouraging them to fill out a Union of Concerned Scientists survey on scientific integrity at federal agencies. He also said he has been working very closely with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and it has been “very supportive” of NOAA.
Gallaudet expressed confidence that the team of political appointees currently in place at NOAA is “one of the best teams to really know what NOAA needs and to know how get it and to get it quickly.” Asked later if the Senate’s delay in confirming Myers has caused any problems, he replied the agency would “probably be much more effective” in engaging with the Commerce Department and the White House “if their pick was in.” He made a pitch for Myers:
He’s a great executive with … the type of experience that this administration will want. And we’re at a time when we want that engagement. … We’ll be a lot more effective with him on the team.