The Arctic Climatologist Calling Attention to a Looming Data Crisis
FAIRBANKS – At the end of 2022, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration produced its latest assessment of Arctic weather patterns, revealing the region’s most urgent climate threat – extreme precipitation – a warning that scientists say requires more informed preparation for a potential spike in violent weather events.
Calling attention to these changes is a weatherman most Alaskans have probably heard of, widely quoted in the press and routinely mentioned on social media.
Rick Thoman of Fairbanks is one of roughly 100 climate and weather experts working with the investigative International Arctic Research Center (IARC) at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. Across two decades, the IARC has been recognized for laying bare pressing scientific problems stemming from the rapidly changing Arctic – and not just in the United States but across the Circumpolar North.
Mr. Thoman, a retired National Weather Service forecaster and climate scientist of thirty years, joined the IARC in 2018, a career transition he jokingly refers to as his “Wal-Mart Greeter” job. In many ways, his position at the IARC’s Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy (ACCAP) allows him to maintain the kind of public relations outreach he delivered while with the NWS, translating available weather and climate science to area tribal nations and organizations that have a real need for understanding this information.
To this end, he has also spent a lot of time, lately, monitoring and discussing what is less seen in climate reports – a dearth of data that he says could negatively impact the practical and economic preparation for individuals and municipalities across Alaska in anticipation of a new normal: stormier, wetter weather. (Think heavier snowfalls and more flood-prone breakup seasons.)
With his mop of silvery curls and professor-like lilt – a trait of his many weather-explaining webinars – Mr. Thoman is known by many scientists, journalists, and Alaska Native hunters for his wonky charts and graphs paired with his less-wonky climate commentary. When he was nominated for the 2020 NOAA Distinguished Career Award, which he received, authors described him as having “a passion for Alaska and Alaskans” in addressing the climate crisis. And in a recent report, the Sea Ice for Walrus Outlook (SIWO), a resource for Yupik and Iñupiat subsistence hunters in the Bering Strait region, wrote how Mr. Thoman has contributed “valuable information” to their maritime chronicling that they attribute to saving lives.
Conservatives, however, see Mr. Thoman differently.
When The New York Times quoted him in an article last December about the increase in extreme precipitation patterns in the Arctic, the author of the website junkscience.com, Steve Milloy, called him a “climate loser”. Pointing out the counterintuitiveness – that on a warming planet, winter storms can actually produce more snow, for instance – Milloy saw the opportunity to debunk such logic, tweeting, “Climate is the say-anything hoax.”
But the latest weather predictions proposed by Mr. Thoman, together with nearly 150 experts featured in the 2022 Arctic Report Card, including his colleague and Chief Scientist of the IARC, John Walsh, represent the apolitical framework that has long-centered climate science. On Thoman’s 100th NWS Climate Outlook Briefing last September, an online series hosted by ACCAP, Walsh marked the milestone, saying the webinars were one of the Center’s biggest success stories. “It lets us connect the Weather Service with the users in Alaska,” said Walsh. “Who it’s intended for.”
While Mr. Thoman and others are helping make National Weather Service information more accessible and relatable to the masses, such sharing is not without reference to the role that government should fulfill in preparing communities for a predicted increase in extreme weather events. For Alaska, this includes providing data that is vital for first responders, subsistence hunters, and researchers. But first, the data-gathering must improve.
“North America has been the poster child for how not to do it,” said Mr. Thoman, about how climate and weather observations have degraded over the decades. He should know. One of his first jobs in the 1980s was as a weather observer based in Nome, on the eve of a seismic shift for the NWS – an era he describes as “pre-automation.”
In the 1990s in an effort to cut costs, the NWS reorganized, shuttering dozens of climate stations while replacing human observers with automatic radars in the sites that remained. Alaska was a momentary exception, holding out longer than most. But eventually, its offices succumbed to machine-operated reporting, too. The shift meant that all that human-engineered data – aviation events, weather patterns, and snowfall, for instance – largely stopped being recorded, and as a result, was no longer catalogued by NOAA, the agency that oversee’s the NWS. Today, these same observations represent a lean read by official benchmarks to that of thirty years ago. Meanwhile, there has been an explosion of weather and climate related events that have occurred.
Compared to Russia, most if not all of its weather stations are still human-operated unlike in the U.S. which are now all automated. The outcome? “Zero of those stations report snowfall,” said Mr. Thoman, which is problematic given the recent scientific warnings about Arctic extreme precipitation.
No data and bad data suddenly matter more than ever to everyday Americans now that climate change is destabilizing everything from the insurance industry to emergency management response. In Alaska, it could make the difference of whether a home-owner with coverage can replace their roof when it caves to back-to-back blizzards, or if a small village can seek financial relief after spring breakup unleashes unprecedented floodwaters.
Already, big insurance companies are balking at accepting new policies in places where catastrophic wildfires and violent storms are occurring each year. Meanwhile, policymakers have offered few fixes. Data gaps merely exacerbate these circumstances.
The situation is made worse by a growing public who is losing confidence in the National Weather Service, overall. In 2021, after Hurricane Ida claimed the lives of some 50 people in New York City and the surrounding area, the city’s then-mayor, Bill DeBlasio insinuated that information from the NWS was unreliable. New York City now pays a private forecast company for its severe weather warnings in lieu of the NWS. "Appreciate the federal government,” DeBlasio said after the floods. “But they're going to have to make a lot more investments."
It’s no secret that funding is at the heart of the data disparities brought by the NWS. The agency, under the Department of Commerce, had a total budget of $1.3 billion for the fiscal year 2022, much less than what experts say is needed to get more accurate and specific warnings out to the public faster – information that witnesses in Nome have, for years, described as flawed.
When the Trump administration initiated agency reform for the NWS under the Evolve Program in 2017, residents in Nome were later called to a community meeting to discuss their experiences with local forecasts. Some complained that the weather alerts they saw on their phone didn’t match what was happening outside their windows. Others, who were mariners, told harrowing tales about storms that never had been detected on their radars while at sea.
Since then, the situation hasn’t gotten better – only worse. In 2018, Nome became one of nine NWS offices in the State of Alaska where human-operated weather balloon launchers were replaced with a million-dollar machine called an Autosonde. And while these contraptions still track twice daily weather and climate data – things like temperature, wind speed, humidity, and atmospheric pressure – gone are the measurements of actual on-the-ground reporting like snowfall.
There has also been an outsized reliance on the Federal Aviation Administration, the first government entity in the U.S. to experiment with weather automation. Today, the massive agency, roughly ten times the size of the NWS, boasts about having automated weather stations virtually all over the map. But in Alaska, for instance, many of these sites are frequently inoperable or altogether defunct, an estimated 15-20% of stations at a time by Mr. Thoman’s account. For example, Hooper Bay’s station has been offline since ex-Typoon Merbok. And Emmonak’s hasn’t worked since the days of the pandemic lockdown.
That these dysfunctional weather stations are situated in some of the most endangered, frontline communities to the climate crisis increases the need for lawmakers to perhaps demand better data. But Mr. Thoman says that advocacy must first come from the affected communities, themselves.
“We really need this in a time of rapid change,” said Mr. Thoman. “But the push has to come from the people.”
“All I can do is help keep this issue alive.”