What happens when the government shuts down?
As the federal government enters its third week with offices shuttered, scientists fear a prolonged shutdown could take a toll on critical government work, from predicting hurricanes to fighting coral disease.
At the National Hurricane Center in Miami, on the heels of two ferocious back-to-back Atlantic seasons, forecasters have had to put off preparations for next season. Modeling work intended to improve forecasts has been postponed and training meetings with federal emergency workers canceled. Even efforts to fight a mysterious new disease infecting the Florida reef tract, that now stands as the longest and largest disease outbreak among coral anywhere, have slowed.
“For the next hurricane season you really want to have the full power of the federal government working to make better hurricane forecasts,” said hurricane specialist and union steward Eric Blake, who continues to work without pay. “Right now it’s missing a wheel or two.”
While essential employees remain on the job, and vital jobs like daily forecasts from the National Weather Service considered life-saving continue, much of the government research work that serves as the foundation for other efforts has ceased. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory on Virginia Key is closed, along with the hurricane research division and fisheries center. The climate prediction center continues to issue operational forecasts, but staff who double check models and oversee quality control are furloughed.
“The hardcore nitty-gritty stuff is getting glossed over. They’re just pushing it out the door the best they can,” said Ben Kirtman, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.
For now, work on NOAA’s hurricane model to predict intensity, which incorporates the largest range of information because it incorporates data from government sources including hurricane hunter planes, satellites, dropsondes sent into storms and buoys, is on hold.
“In the off-season is when we try to make things better,” Blake said. “You’re basically stopping that side of things.”
At this week’s meeting of the American Meteorological Society in Arizona, the largest meeting of meteorologists with 3,700 attending, about 20 percent were no-shows because they are federal workers. In a statement issued Sunday, the start of the five-day conference, the society’s council warned the ongoing shutdown was beginning to hurt efforts to protect the nation.
“Like a chain reaction, the impacts of a government shutdown ripple far beyond those who are furloughed and can impede the development of new scientific technologies that are vital to our nation,” they wrote.
Kirtman, who was attending the conference, said the shutdown was the “background buzz” hanging over discussions.
“I had a lot of side meetings scheduled with NOAA folks and all those meetings are canceled. It was a chance to have face time without having to fly all over the country,” he said.
His own forecast model, used by NOAA to make longer forecasts that help predict more extreme events, is now in jeopardy from the shutdown because it relies on data from government researchers for initial conditions.
“We were able to get those forecasts done for today, but we will not be able to get it in the coming weeks” if furloughs continue, he said. “So this will be the first time since those projects started running in real time, this will be the first one we will miss.”
Beyond modeling, Kirtman said there are field experiments, like tracking currents or looking at ocean or atmospheric conditions, that have been halted. Without the information, gaps in data can lead to complications in research, he said.
“It’s not like modeling where I can rerun the model. If we’re not able to take that field campaign, it’s lost forever,” he said. “I guarantee nationwide throughout NOAA there are efforts to go to sea to take observations that are stopped and will never be done.”
There are also more practical matters for workers, who Blake said have missed their first two-week paycheck.
“What do you do? You pay the minimum on your credit cards and just only do the absolute essential stuff and hope it ends sooner than later,” he said. “I wish I’d known those Christmas credit cards are going to come due.”
Unlike previous shutdowns, Blake said this year’s came with little warning. It wasn’t telegraphed, he said, so there wasn’t time to prepare.
“Everyone I’ve talked to just wants to work and be paid,” he said. “They want to work and keep serving the American public.”