Trump Tried to Bully NOAA. Its Chief Scientist Just Released a Remarkable Letter to Fight Back.

“There was a complex issue involving the President commenting on the path of the hurricane.”

Evan Vucci/AP

NOAA Acting Chief Scientist Craig McLean sent a letter over the weekend to the agency’s staff to address the controversy that ensued after President Donald Trump falsely claimed that Hurricane Dorian was headed for Alabama. On Tuesday, NOAA publicly released that letter, following a wild week when the normally understated agency was in the spotlight.

The controversy began with several days of tweets by Trump insisting that his prediction about Dorian and Alabama was correct.

On Friday afternoon, NOAA had put out an unsigned statement backing Trump and admonishing the Birmingham office, writing that the “Birmingham National Weather Service’s Sunday morning tweet spoke in absolute terms that were inconsistent with probabilities from the best forecast products available at the time.”

This statement was widely viewed as politicizing the weather. Then on Monday, the director of NOAA’s National Weather Service, Louis Uccellini, led a standing ovation for the forecasters in the Birmingham, Alabama, office who corrected Trump’s false assertion that Alabama was in Dorian’s path. NOAA is part of the Department of Commerce, and on the same day, the New York Times reported that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross “threatened to fire top employees at the federal scientific agency responsible for weather forecasts last Friday after the agency’s Birmingham office contradicted President Trump’s claim that Hurricane Dorian might hit Alabama.”

This conflict culminated in a letter McLean sent to NOAA staff promising an investigation into why the agency released that statement supporting Trump’s false warnings for Alabama. That now-public letter reads:

During the course of the storm, as I am sure you are aware, there were routine and exceptional expert forecasts, the best possible, issued by the NWS Forecasters…As I’m sure you also know, there was a complex issue involving the President commenting on the path of the hurricane. The NWS Forecaster(s) corrected any public misunderstanding in an expert and timely way, as they should. There followed, last Friday, an unsigned press release from “NOAA” that inappropriately and incorrectly contradicted the NWS forecaster. My understanding is that this intervention to contradict the forecaster was not based on science but on external factors including reputation and appearance, or simply put, political.

McLean goes on to explain that he will investigate whether the NOAA press release was a violation of the agency’s policy on scientific integrity:

Unfortunately, the press release of last Friday violated this trust and violated NOAA’s policies of scientific integrity. In my role as Assistant Administrator for Research, and as I continue to administratively serve as Acting Chief Scientist, I am pursuing the potential violations of our NOAA Administrative Order on Scientific Integrity…I have a responsibility to pursue these truths. I will.

There have been no reactions from the White House or the office of Commerce Secretary Ross to the letter. 

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