Tracking the Storm at the National Hurricane Center

Posted by Brad Johnson Thu, 19 Jul 2007 14:00:00 GMT

Responding to the reports of disarray at the National Hurricane Center (NHC) of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the U.S. House Committee on Science and Technology and the Committee on Energy and Commerce took action to determine if the Center was indeed incapable of providing necessary forecasts during the hurricane season.

Rep. Nick Lampson (D-TX), Chairman of the Science and Technology Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, convened a meeting in June with the heads of NOAA and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to learn more about the Quikscat satellite controversy. A hearing on the use of the Quikscat satellite data for hurricane forecasting had already been planned.

With the escalation of the controversy at the NHC in recent days, and subsequent action by NOAA Administrator Admiral Lautenbacher to place Hurricane Center Director William Proenza on leave, the Committees determined that further information was required.

This week they asked Admiral Lautenbacher for documents and records of communications from senior NWS officials and others involved in the controversy.

Witnesses Panel I
  • Mr. Bill Proenza, Director of the National Hurricane Center (NHC)
Panel II
  • Dr. Robert M. Atlas, Director, Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory
  • Mr. Don McKinnon, Director, Jones County Emergency Management Agency
Panel III
  • Vice Admiral Conrad C. Lautenbacher, Under Secretary for Commerce, Administrator, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The Jeff Masters (Wunderground hurricane specialist) outside perspective: before the firing:

A political storm engulfed the National Hurricane Center this week, with a majority of the senior hurricane forecasters calling for Bill Proenza’s removal as director. The most visible issue revolved around the extraordinary focus on the aging QuikSCAT satellite. The public argument put forth by Mr. Proenza was that QuikSCAT data was so vital to hurricane track forecasting that without it, track forecast errors would increase significantly, leading to larger warning areas and increased costs for evacuation and emergency planning.


I believe that NHC official forecasts for landfalling storms in the Atlantic would not be significantly affected by the loss of the QuikSCAT satellite. I can’t think of a hurricane scientist out there who would defend using a study with only 19 cases that didn’t focus on landfalling storms, to make the case Proenza is making—particularly in light of the data from the unpublished Goerss study showing no effect of QuikSCAT data on NOGAPS model tropical cyclone track errors. Proenza should have at least attached some measure of uncertainty to his numbers, which he did not.


It greatly troubles me that the most visible and admired member of my profession has failed to use good science in his arguments for funding a replacement of the QuikSCAT satellite. The Director of the National Hurricane Center needs to be an able politician and good communicator, but being truthful with the science is a fundamental requirement of the job as well. Mr. Proenza has misrepresented the science on the QuikSCAT issue, and no longer has my support as director of the National Hurricane Center.


Having lost the support of most of his senior forecasters, and having misrepresented the science on the importance of the QuikSCAT satellite on hurricane forecasts, it would be best for Mr. Proenza to step down as director of the National Hurricane Center.

after the firing:
With hurricane season fast approaching and internal strife threatening “the effective functioning of the National Hurricane Center”, as stated in a letter signed by 23 of NHC’s 49 employees, NOAA did the best thing by reassigning director Bill Proenza this afternoon. Conrad Lautenbacher, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, announced Proenza has been placed on leave “until further notice.”

The reassignment puts NHC deputy director Ed Rappaport, 49, into the director’s hot seat. I greatly respect Dr. Rappaport, who has done a great job as deputy director and is a highly skilled hurricane forecaster. Dr. Rappaport has a Ph.D. in Atmospheric Sciences from Texas Tech. He began work in 1988 at NHC, and served as one NHC’s Hurricane Specialists before becoming chief of the Technical Support Branch. He is the best choice for director of NHC. He had wide support to become director last year when Max Mayfield retired, but turned down the job due to family reasons.