Learning from weather events

To the editor:

Who recalls any prediction of unprecedented rain in Houghton County last June 16? Time will tell if the catastrophic flood the next day will teach us much. At times we learn and make improvements after a natural disaster, but often we don’t learn enough.

“Into the Raging Sea”, a 2018 book by Rachel Slade, is a gripping account of the sinking of the El Faro, a 790-foot container ship that sailed into the eye of category 4 hurricane Joaquin in 2015 off the Bahamas en route from Jacksonville to San Juan. The El Faro was the fourth-largest American ship lost since World War II (the Edmund Fitzgerald was the largest).

The last 26 hours of conversation on the bridge of the El Faro were recorded in the ship’s black box, including the last-minute panic of a crewmember being coaxed out of the wheelhouse by the captain as the ship rolled over in 120-mph winds and 30-50 foot waves. All 33 crew members were swallowed by the sea.

In the 21st century, large ships are lost for more than one reason. Contributing to the wreck of the El Faro were inaccurate predictions of the likely path of the hurricane by the National Hurricane Center, inadequate safety and emergency equipment, (e.g., grandfathered-approval of open-top lifeboats, an emergency locater with a dead battery), and inadequate vessel inspections outsourced by the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG). Heroic rescue efforts by USCG and the subsequent search for the sunken ship cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

Increasingly, we are presented with weather predictions that come from European models, which sometimes prove to be more accurate than American models. European models rely partially on data provided by U.S. government sources, but all data are processed on large super-computers run by a well-funded 35-nation multilingual consortium maintained by the European Union, where efforts are not dissipated by debate over the causes of climate change.

Following the loss of the El Faro in 2015, the collective response of Americans might be exemplified by the White House budget request in 2017 (as reported in the Washington Post) that called for a $5 million funding cut for NOAA to “reduce investment in numerical weather prediction modeling,” and a corresponding 14 percent reduction in the budget of the U.S. Coast Guard. So it goes.

Rolf Peterson