NWS Forecasters Still Tracking Storms Amid Government Shutdown | WGLT

NWS Forecasters Still Tracking Storms Amid Government Shutdown

Jan 17, 2019

We all know weather forecasters never get the forecast right, except for the 90 percent of the time when they do.  

Forecasters who work for the National Weather Service now face a more tangible concern than claims of unreliable prognostications, as they are caught up in a federal government shutdown, now the longest in history at close to four weeks.

National Weather Service offices, including the one in Lincoln, are still running as the government has deemed them as "excepted status," which means their work is considered essential.

Chris Miller is the warning coordination meteorologist at the Lincoln office.

“We are trying to do mission-essential things, giving people information so they can make decisions to protect their property or to make decisions about whether or not they are going to travel,” Miller said. “It could be life-saving information.”

Miller added the offices’ forecasters not only provide weather alerts to the general public, its data also helps air travel.

“A lot of people aren’t aware also we do forecasting for all of the larger airports in Central Illinois, including the Central Illinois Regional Airport,” Miller said. “We update that every six hours for pilots and for flights coming in and out.”

The weather office in Lincoln has 23 employees, including 17 meteorologists. They are all due back pay once the shutdown ends.

Climate Change

Miller said the recent spate of extreme weather in Central Illinois, high temperatures approaching 60 degrees five days before a major snowstorm, is another example of the impact of climate change.

He said these dramatic weather changes are evidence that climate change goes far beyond global warming. He said even if Central Illinois temperatures don’t deviate far from historical norms, he said extreme weather elsewhere around the globe makes its impact felt here.

“Climate change doesn’t just mean warming, it can also mean extreme cold. It can also mean extreme rainfall and extreme snowfall,” Miller said. “We are experiencing that and there’s probably a connection there.”

Miller said another example of climate change is that tornadoes are no longer just a spring event. He noted tornadoes are becoming more common in February, March and December.

Forecasting Accuracy

Miller said because of technology improvements, five-day outlooks are as accurate as two-day forecasts were in the 1980s. He said claims of weather inaccuracy are fueled by the fact that many people get their weather from multiple, sometimes conflicting sources and many forecasts used by the media are geographically broad to cover their entire audience.

“If it doesn’t occur in my backyard, then that was a bad forecast,” Miller quipped. “Nevermind that it occurred a half-mile away.”

He said there's an ongoing debate among meteorologists about how far in advance they should post snowfall projections in the forecasts.

He suggests don't trust any projections more than a few days out.

NWS is keeping its eye on the likelihood of a snowstorm for Central Illinois this weekend, but Miller said it’s too early to determine its potential severity.

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