Tuesday 11 June 2024

Is The Bureau of Meteorology Marching Australia Into Even More Danger As Climate Change Risks Increase?


No-one who lived through the catastrophic combination of weather systems which flooded est. 600 kilometres of Australia’s east coast in 2022 would be in doubt that the Australian Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) was failing in its primary function.

Particularly here in the NSW Northern Rivers region, where the erratic & contradictory forecasting by BOM during the eight days of 23 February to 2 March 2022 saw at least four people drown in preventable deaths.

Months after that record-breaking flood event ABC News reported on the findings of a NSW parliamentary inquiry:

information from the State Emergency Service (SES) and Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) was "incorrect and out of date", leaving the community with "no other option but to ignore government advice and save lives"....It urged the weather bureau to review its rain data infrastructure and flood modelling tools.

However, the worry began for me long before that, when in 2016 I read this:

Dr Johnson has a Bachelor of Agricultural Science (Honours) and PhD from the University of Queensland and a Masters in Public Administration from the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University where he was a Rotary Foundation Scholar. He is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technical Sciences and Engineering and the Australian Institute of Company Directors.

And realised there was no indepth formal meteorological training in his background.

Worries about BOM under Dr.Johnson have been bubbling to the surface in the media since his installation as Director and this below is only the latest.....

"I'm told a nationwide data centre outage on Friday affected observations ~across the entire country~ Missing min and max temps, wind speeds for Friday and Sat at every single obs. station with the exception of the airports which are not yet auto" [Rick Morton

@SquigglyRick, 10 June 2024]

The Saturday Paper, June 8 – 14, 2024 | No. 503:

Inside the Bureau of Meteorology’s forecast failings

As the Bureau of Meteorology pulls back on its international obligations, increasing automation and a lack of experienced staff has made forecasts less reliable.

By Rick Morton

Bureau of Meteorology chief executive Dr Andrew Johnson turned up to Senate estimates last month without his right-hand man, Peter Stone, many of the bureau’s other executives and, apparently, his briefing notes.

Johnson, who is also the director of meteorology, appointed to the now $533,000 a year job in 2016 by former environment minister Josh Frydenberg, claimed not to be able to answer basic questions about BoM processes. At one stage, he even attempted to prevent his chief operating officer from speaking.

So, you have no familiarity? Don’t you come prepared for Senate estimates?” Liberal Senator Jonathon Duniam said after asking basic questions alongside Greens Senator Barbara Pocock about how the BoM handles cost overruns and contract delivery delays.

I am shocked at the lack of capacity to answer questions of that nature even in a general sense. This is astounding.”

It was less astounding to senior Bureau of Meteorology staff who have watched a $1 billion-plus technology transformation project at the agency, called ROBUST, slide off the rails over several years. And less surprising still to the meteorologists at the forecaster, who have witnessed a centralisation of the BoM’s remaining qualified staff to a “national production” model based in Melbourne and Brisbane while being told not to change automatic local forecasts they know to be wrong.

The philosophy was ‘near enough is good enough’,” a former meteorologist says.

When the director would come around spruiking the centralisation, that was the actual quote. You know, if you’re saying it’s going to be wet and it’s super wet, that’s not life-threatening. He wants to focus on ‘high-impact events’ but they are not going to be a problem because they’ve got specialised teams.

But, for a farmer, five millimetres [of rain] as opposed to 20 millimetres is a massive big deal.”

The noticeable slip in forecast quality, especially where meteorologists have been prevented by resourcing constraints or internal policy from correcting known errors in the automatic model outputs, was first confirmed by The Saturday Paper and stems in part from a broader cultural shift at the Bureau of Meteorology. According to sources, this shift has seen a massive restructure of talent and the removal of internal voices of dissent.

You can warn them about quality but they will straight up tell you black is white and then move on, expecting you to get with the program,” one forecaster says. “And then they wonder why the wheels are falling off.”

Since Johnson came to the role eight years ago, eight members of the small executive team who report directly to him have left. The turnover in management ranks below has been much greater.

Meanwhile, forecasters – including those who work on floods or bushfires in addition to the meteorologists – have increased by just five positions. The work required of these highly qualified people, however, has become more demanding and more complex.

Poor planning and management practices at the weather agency have exacerbated resource constraints. Like the weather they forecast, these issues operate in a tightly interconnected system of feedback loops.

Take the now abandoned plan to move the national forecast grid to a three-kilometre resolution. After years of effort, the project was deemed “too hard” and shelved in late 2021, returning the nation to a six-kilometre grid in every state and territory, including Victoria and Tasmania, which were already successfully running at the sharper resolution.

At the same time, however, a new Australian Fire Danger Rating System (AFDRS) was already in development with prototypes tested by the BoM and the New South Wales Rural Fire Service. The royal commission into the 2019-20 Black Summer bushfires recommended it be fast-tracked.

Among other features, this new system was designed on a three-kilometre grid. The race to have it launched suffered as “all Graphical Forecast Editor (GFE) development resources” were dedicated to making the grid change happen, pushing back delivery timelines on the new fire-warning system.

At the other end of delivery, new delays were added. Aborting the three-kilometre grid project resulted in the need to translate BoM’s six-kilometre resolution data to the fire grid via additional “workarounds” from forecasters.

Testing of the AFDRS has now also been compromised by a six-year delay in upgrades to the Bureau of Meteorology supercomputer, Australis II.

The attitude there now seems to be ‘what’s in it for us?’ despite the fact the BoM is a big player in the Pacific region with climate change and tropical cyclones.”

Last month, BoM researchers led by Paul Gregory and Naomi Benger released a report analysing the seasonal outlooks produced as part of the new rating system.

Currently the outlooks cannot be verified in realtime as there are no sources of gridded, realtime, AFDRS observations,” the paper says.

This lack of realtime observations also prevents the Bureau from providing any post-event analysis using AFDRS. This service gap can be filled by integrating the AFDRS computational modules into the Bureau’s National Analysis System (NAS), and the realtime BARRA-2 reanalysis system.

Both of these systems are currently in trial and are awaiting the upgrading of the Bureau’s supercomputer (Australis II) for deployment.”......

Forecasters who spoke to The Saturday Paper, on condition of anonymity because they feared reprisals, have attributed at least some of their deep unhappiness at the BoM to the management culture.

One persistent issue is the decision to launch the massive Public Services Transformation project alongside the ROBUST technology investment. While the former might have had some appeal from an efficiency point of view, the parallel nature of the two vast projects created substantial backlogs and catastrophic delays.

To be honest, we have never recovered from either program,” another employee says.

We have just been crunched. And at the same time, the country has faced some of its worst ever flood and fire events one after another. I feel like the accountability has gone out the window.”

ROBUST was in part inspired by a cybersecurity incident, and its funding, provided by the former Coalition government, was labelled “cabinet in confidence” and has never been officially revealed.

At Senate estimates late last month, Andrew Johnson told the parliament his executives were accountable to him but that he did not have a performance agreement personally.

My performance agreement in a sense is the corporate plan that I table to the minister and which is tabled to the parliament, but I personally don’t have a performance agreement, and I’ve not had one since I commenced in 2016,” he said.

Under Johnson’s leadership, the Bureau of Meteorology has stopped meeting all of its World Meteorological Organization obligations, cutting back substantially on the frequency of upper atmosphere soundings.

Content now removed from the BoM website states the “benefits” in data sharing under the World Meteorological Organization are “substantial but also impose a responsibility for Australia to also contribute to the international system”.

As one meteorologist told The Saturday Paper: “The attitude there now seems to be ‘what’s in it for us?’ despite the fact the BoM is a big player in the Pacific region with climate change and tropical cyclones.”

Domestically, quality suffers in subtle but important ways. Overnight shifts on the national production desk can shrink to four people who are responsible for an entire country’s forecasting. Almost all of this is model output, but changes still need to be made and there are only so many available to perform the work.

Now even the capital city airports – a fiercely protected domain by aviation forecasters at the BoM – are subject to automation with a $3.3 million, one-year contract issued by the weather agency in the middle of May.

Last weekend, in Perth, the BoM’s Saturday night forecasts were accurate but the Sunday forecast predicted “armageddon” – despite the fact the weather had all but cleared.

And the issue that comes out early in the morning, that’s the four o’clock issue, it’s done from Melbourne,” a meteorologist says. “The forecasters come in at 6am and then have to look at what mess they’d been left with, basically, and try and make sense of it.”

Early Sunday morning, the BoM was still predicting 25 to 50 millimetres of rain in Perth, with thunderstorms that were possibly severe.

It had all gone overnight Saturday and into Sunday morning,” the forecaster says.

So by eight o’clock Sunday, you were left with a few residual showers before the forecast got changed at nine o’clock, and reflected what it should have been. They had the rainfall totals down to about seven millimetres, but the app continued to show 20 to 50 millimetres.”

Such an approach to forecasting nationally is not without consequences. Farmers in the Western Australian wheat belt were furious. Organisers of a WA Day celebration event in Burswood cancelled the festival in advance, based on forecasts that showed “even heavier rainfall” throughout the long weekend.....

The Bureau of Meteorology said in a statement that Peter Stone, who earlier this year was found by a Federal Circuit Court judge to have engaged in a deliberate attempt to mislead the court regarding a BoM workplace case, was sick during the week of Senate estimates.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 8, 2024 as "Inside the BoM’s forecast failings".

Read the full article at:


No comments: