2011's Weather Is a Precursor of Things to Come, says NOAA Assistant Administrator
John Hayes addresses how NOAA is keeping up with a warming climate and societal changes.
John L. "Jack" Hayes is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration assistant administrator for weather services and National Weather Service (NWS) director. He is responsible for an integrated weather services program; supporting the delivery of a variety of weather, water and climate services to government, industry and the general public, including the preparation and delivery of weather warnings and predictions; and the exchange of data products and forecasts with international organizations. He responded to a set of questions posed by Emergency Management magazine.
Weather-related disasters seem to be on the rise. How do you explain this?
In 2011, more than 1,100 people died in weather events and more than 8,000 were injured. The year also included at least 14 individual events — a record — that caused economic damages of $1 billion or more and carry a collective price tag of more than $55 billion. There is both a scientific and a societal explanation for these increased impacts. Scientifically speaking, we saw a range of short-term, cyclical climate factors in play, such as La Niña, which altered storm patterns. Events such as the southern drought contrasting the floods across the northern U.S., represent the extreme temperature and precipitation swings that climate scientists project will become more common in the future amid a warming climate. Society is also changing. The U.S. population has almost doubled since 1954, which corresponds with higher property and infrastructure values. Trends such as urban sprawl and conversion of rural land to suburban landscapes increase the likelihood that a tornado will impact densely populated areas. The wild weather of 2011 reminds us all of our increasing vulnerability and prompted an initiative to build a Weather-Ready Nation.
The 21st century is the digital age. What types of major improvements are being made today or are on the drawing board to modernize the national weather system?
Weather forecasts have improved dramatically in recent decades through investment in research and technology. An example of how research is coming to fruition, the NWS is in the process of upgrading its national network of Doppler radars to have dual-polarization technology. When this upgrade is completed in 2013, all radars will be more sophisticated with the ability to distinguish precipitation type [rain, snow, ice] and in many cases detect precisely where a tornado is on the ground by detecting debris being tossed by the vortex. This additional information will arm forecasters with the knowledge and confidence to issue more detailed alerts to save lives and protect property. We are also improving our satellite observation system with the [NASA-launched NPOESS Preparatory Project] polar-orbiting satellite. And this year we will begin construction on a National Water Center in Tuscaloosa, Ala., which will provide integrated and expansive water resources information to expand and improve river and flood forecasting, enhance water resource management, and accelerate the application of research to real world uses.
Weather warnings are critical to protecting people and property. What is the average time for severe weather warnings to be distributed once weather systems are detected?
Nationally, the average lead time for tornadoes is 12 to 14 minutes, but during the various outbreaks of severe weather in 2011, tornado warnings were issued with an average lead time of approximately 25 minutes and some exceeded 30 minutes. Not long ago, the average lead was half as long. Warnings for flash flooding, another leading cause of weather-related fatalities, have also improved greatly with the nationwide average lead time of one hour or more. We’ve made great strides in improving the reliability and lead times of “short-fuse” warnings for events such as tornadoes, flash floods and severe thunderstorms when every minute counts. And there’s great potential for further enhancements.
An effective warning requires that the threat be detected, a warning communicated and the people in the impacted area must take action to protect themselves. What is the NWS doing to get people to take action once they have been warned?
Last year, while the NWS issued accurate outlooks days in advance of severe weather events, issued watches hours in advance, and sounded warnings longer than the national average, there was still a tragic loss of life. The improvements we’ve made in predicting weather have enabled us to refocus our attention on the public’s response to warnings and alerts. Social science is part of the solution. By helping atmospheric scientists and the emergency management community better understand how weather information is received and what triggers people to take action, we can communicate the threat more effectively and save more lives.