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Proenza Review Raises Additional Questions

Andrew Freedman @ 12:00 AM

Although Bill Proenza's short and turbulent tenure as director of NOAA's National Hurricane Center has essentially ended, he may yet prove to have a lasting and not altogether negative impact on the future of NOAA.

While the report from the internal Department of Commerce inspection team that reviewed his leadership amounts to an abysmal assessment of his performance - to the point where it's difficult to see how he will remain at the agency in any capacity - it also contains general criticism of NOAA's lack of planning for the future needs of the nation's vital hurricane forecasting enterprise.

Jason Samenow's Forecast

Nice Day StampToday: Mostly sunny and pleasant. Highs 80-85. Northeast wind 8-13mph.
Tonight: A slight chance of showers late (20%). Lows 65-70.
Monday: Mostly cloudy with a chance of showers (35%). Highs in the upper 70s.

Thus, the report skewers Proenza for his tactics and for the specific data he cited when calling attention to the lack of planning, but it also verifies and echoes the validity of his concerns.

This duality is evident in the section that deals with the QuickSCAT satellite issue. Proenza first got into trouble by repeatedly and publicly calling attention to the potential dangers associated with the failure to replace QuickSCAT, which currently enables hurricane forecasters to measure wind speed and direction over vast expanses of ocean water that hurricane hunter aircraft cannot reach.

According to the review team report, while Proenza may have misstated exactly how detrimental the loss of the satellite would be to hurricane forecasting capabilities, he was correct for pointing out the fact that the loss could cut into hurricane forecast accuracy.

"Satellite-based instrumentation is expensive and subject to long planning horizons; the value of active observation instruments, like the instrument aboard QuickSCAT, should be quantified in the near future," the report stated. "Planning for a more capable replacement for the QuickSCAT satellite instrumentation should proceed apace."

The report stated that in the wake of the Proenza affair, the National Centers for Environmental Prediction, or NCEP, has launched an assessment "to quantify the relative contributions of QuickSCAT-generated data on hurricane-related analysis and forecasts."

Given that NOAA is managing a large part of the development of new weather and climate satellites, the fact that they have not already thought it worthwhile to perform such an assessment is a scandal in itself. It's commonsense to justify why it's necessary to spend a hefty sum to construct a complicated piece of machinery, attach it to a rocket and launch it into space. After all, although it's unlikely, they could find that it's not that valuable at all, and taxpayer dollars would go to waste by building an updated version.

In a little-noticed statement buried in the report, the internal independent team essentially stated that the Hurricane Center (known in the report as the "Tropical Prediction Center") lacks any strategic plans for the future. Ouch.

"TPC should develop a vision for the future, clearly identifying its priorities and how it plans to get there," the report states. That statement implies that there is no "vision" right now, which is equally if not more scandalous than whether or not Proenza was undermining public confidence in NOAA forecasts.

This is especially worrisome considering one of NOAA's primary functions is to FORECAST the weather.

No one likes answering the question of "Where do you see yourself in five years?" but a multimillion dollar center responsible for protecting lives and property should have some idea of what they might need to ensure they can fulfill their mission down the road.

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