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Op-Ed: Staffing Shortage Spells Trouble for High Seas Forecasts

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Information removed in recent changes to NOAA's surface forecasts, in black (Lee Chesneau / NOAA)

By Lee Chesneau 2018-07-25 21:29:00

The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's Ocean Prediction Center is short of the number of forecasters required to perform high-quality 24/7 operations, hindering its ability to support the maritime community.

OPC has five workstations that provide warning and forecast services for the North Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The normal staffing arrangement to support round-the-clock warnings and forecast coverage is five people per desk (25 in total). The hours assigned to each desk may vary, sometimes depending on the weather situation for each. There is allowance for time off for vacation, leave of absence, unscheduled sick leave, and a few days to do research and outreach projects. There are also normal time delays in filling vacant forecast positions due to forecaster transfers and retirements.

Today, staffing at OPC is down to less than 20 forecasters, too little to sustain high-quality operations for the long term. This shortfall also minimizes the amount of time for individual research projects and outreach. With fewer staffers to provide coverage at the center, forecasters have less time to get exposure to their front-line customers, the merchant mariners and recreational sailors who rely on their weather products on a daily basis. 

The OPC workflow is built around the HF-Single Sideband transmission schedule for graphical weather charts for the North Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, centered on the 0000 GMT and 1200 GMT forecast cycles. Because of staffing deficiencies, OPC is not producing graphic synoptic forecast charts beyond 48 hours twice daily. These charts are necessary to support merchant shipping across the ocean-spanning reach of the OPC's forecast area. While OPC also issues 48-hour text forecasts via GMDSS, it is the center's graphical charts suite that best serves commerce, and up until November 2017, it was widely considered the “standard of excellence.”

OPC recently initiated significant changes to these chart products. The degradation in service began last year and continued this March, when OPC reduced the amount of tracking information on its surface analyses and forecast charts. The changes proceeded without extensive engagement with stakeholders in the maritime community. 

It is time for mariners to voice their concerns to NOAA and to Congress so they are aware of these unvetted actions, which negatively affect the maritime community. Mariners can direct their comments to their elected representatives on Capitol Hill or to Reed Linsk, deputy chief of staff for Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), the co-sponsor of H.R.6175, the Maritime Safety Act of 2018. He can be reached at Reed.Linsk@mail.house.gov.

Lee Chesneau is a professional meteorologist with more than 45 years of experience, including forecaster assignments with NOAA's Satellite Service (NESDIS), the National Weather Service (NWS) and over eighteen years with the Ocean Prediction Center (OPC). He also served in the U.S. Navy. He now is a private weather consultant and teaches USCG-approved course in meteorology to professional mariners at several continuing education and training institutions, including MITAGS/PMI and STAR Center.

 

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.