Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Follow-up on the Colorado Floods

It's come to my attention that the NWS forecasts for the major flash flood event in Colorado failed to anticipate the disaster that was about to unfold.  And it seems the numerical weather prediction models did a pretty decent job in forecasting substantial precipitation in the area.  Thus, this seems to be a case where the human forecasters subtracted value from the model output, rather than adding value. Learning of this outcome is extremely discouraging to me; this kind of outcome in the face of a severe weather event is precisely what I've spent the last 30 years of my life trying to prevent with forecaster training courses based heavily on what we were trying to do in the Flash Flood Forecasting Course (FFFC).

When the NWS drops the ball by not anticipating hazardous events, the whole chain of responses to those events is threatened.  The core mission of the NWS is to protect lives and property, so by failing to anticipate damaging, life-threatening events, the NWS fails in its most basic responsibility.  Good weather forecasts make a positive difference, but poor forecasts have negative impacts.  

In my last blog, I went on at some length about the origins and content of the FFFC, which was discontinued in the late 1990s.  The original motivation was to prevent more tragedies like the Big Thompson flood of 1976.  Research studies by Bob Maddox, Charlie Chappell, Mike Fritsch, Fernando Caracena, Richard Grumm, Wes Junker, and others provided not only physical understanding of the processes by which flash flooding occurs, but also a historical perspective on the distribution and frequency of flash floods.  We learned the ingredients for a flash flood, which is truly a hydrometeorological event, involving both meteorological and hydrological aspects.  The knowledge is there, ready to be applied in operations.  "Surprises" of this sort simply should not happen.

During our 2-day lectures (as part of the 2-week FFFC), we had very little time to accomplish much in the way of advanced concepts, but the insights and instructional skill of Bob Maddox meant we packed a lot of content into that short time.  We had to do remedial education in the basics of convection, as well as training in the application of physical concepts to real-world forecasting practice.  Most of the forecasters were ill-prepared to move into more advanced topics, so we had to stick to the basics.  Even then, we were constantly challenging forecasters to re-think their understanding.  I still do these things today when I do a training course.

After the end of the FFFC, I was asked to help develop a distance learning module for COMET and the module was supposed to 'duplicate the outcome of the FFFC'.  When I asked what that outcome actually was, since I was unaware of any effort to investigate that topic in any meaningful way, I was greeted with a stony silence.  I declined the opportunity to contribute, on principle.  I didn't believe that any distance learning module could duplicate what we did in our two days.  And I still don't believe that it's possible.  Events in Colorado this year seem to confirm my opinion of distance learning.  What the NWS does for forecaster training isn't even remotely adequate and this tragedy has underscored my concerns.

In the time since our last participation in the FFFC, it's pretty likely that most of the folks we had in the FFFC are no longer sitting at operational forecast desks.  I'm deeply disappointed to learn that the 'corporate memory' within the NWS evidently no longer includes what we tried to impart during the FFFC.  In a world where NWP models are increasingly important to the forecast, it seems that at least some NWS forecasters are no longer capable of using models and the science of meteorology to produce a forecast superior to the models alone.  I've written extensively about where this trend is likely to lead us - see here and here and here and here, just for starters.  It's not something one can contemplate with much confidence that something is being done to prevent the trend from taking us where we don't want to see it go.

Those of us who spent so much time and effort trying to do something about flash flood forecasting are angry and frustrated about this massive flash flood forecast failure.  The forecasters must deal with having a 'defining moment' characterized by failure, but NWS management has to accept its responsibility for this case and do some internal soul-searching to seek a meaningful solution to the problem it represents.

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