U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker Delivers Remarks at the 96th Annual Meeting of the American Meteorological Association


Tuesday, January 12, 2016

On January 11, 2016, U.S. Secretary Commerce Penny Pritzker delivered remarks at the Presidential Town Hall Meeting of the 96th Annual Meeting of the American Meteorological Society (AMS). The AMS Annual Meeting brings together the leading members of nation’s weather, water, and climate communities to discuss timely issues facing those in the weather enterprise.  

During her remarks, Secretary Pritzker discussed the importance the National Weather Service Evolve Initiative, an effort to ensure the NWS can adequately serve communities across the country as society becomes increasingly vulnerable to extreme weather. She also provided an update on NOAA’s Big Data Project, which aims to make more of NOAA’s data accessible to the public.

Under Secretary for Oceans and Atmosphere and National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Administrator Kathryn Sullivan was also in attendance, and participated in an armchair discussion with Secretary Pritzker following her remarks.

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Thank you, Dr. MacDonald for that kind introduction but, more importantly, for the contributions you have made in your career at NOAA and in your present capacity.

It is great to be back with the American Meteorological Society. I enjoyed meeting with you last spring in Washington, where we began our discussion of the National Weather Service’s Evolve initiative and I gave a preview of NOAA’s Big Data Project.

I came here today to take that discussion further, to talk about the challenging yet exciting future that we are all facing all of us across the weather enterprise. What better audience than you – our core constituency – to engage on these matters?    

Never has the relationship between the National Weather Service and the weather enterprise been more critical. The tragic events of the holiday season –including the tornadoes and severe flooding across the South and Midwest that claimed so many lives – reminded us once again that addressing high-impact weather is one of the great imperatives of our time.

As we respond to the growing number of storms, floods, droughts and other extreme events, we must also contend with the acceleration of technological advances and the onrush of the data revolution. Plus we have many shifting actors, including university researchers, startups and big companies, all exploring new roles within the weather community.

This perfect storm of developments is both challenging as well as inspiring many of us in the enterprise, including NOAA.  We at the National Weather Service recognize that our role is not only to make predictions. But, fundamental to our mission is the protection of lives, livelihoods and property. We have to better integrate the science we undertake with the community we are committed to serving.  In other words, we have to evolve.

Why is evolution necessary? At NOAA, we believe that society is becoming more vulnerable and that we face an urgent need. Today, 39 per cent of Americans live in areas of high susceptibility to extreme weather. And in those places, the population density is four times greater than the nation’s average.

When communities are hard hit by storms, 25 per cent of the businesses affected never reopen. And of those that do, there is a high likelihood they will not survive. Bad weather also saps our economy, disrupting everything from air travel to farm work, from our local businesses to our largest conglomerates. Whole supply chains are often stalled – interrupting the flow of people, goods and services fundamental to the functions of our economy.

It is not an overstatement to say that high impact weather is one of the greatest threats to our nation and the entire world. At this time it is up to all of us to double down on our efforts to address it.  That is where the National Weather Service’s Evolve Initiative comes in.

To talk about Evolve, we have to talk about the historic tornado outbreak of April 2011, where tragedy taught us a seminal object lesson: accurate weather forecasting is necessary but not sufficient. Hundreds of tornadoes tore through a handful of communities across the Southeast, in one of the deadliest outbreaks ever recorded.

After the damage was done, the leadership at the National Weather Service took a step back. We knew that our forecasts and warnings for the Southeast had been spot-on and timely from four days out. Our convective risk maps pointed to the very epicenter of the tornado outbreak.

Our science was right on the money – but hundreds of people had died. That was a turning point for all of us – and it led to the creation of our Evolve Initiative.

We knew that we would never waver from our commitment to improve our weather forecasting and technological capabilities – from supercomputing capacity to upgrading our satellites. At NOAA, we call that the “W” part of NWS – the weather component.

But after 2011, we knew that we had to improve our ability to put life-saving data – and here is the crux of the matter – into the hands of our government partners and decision-makers so they would evacuate hospitals, alert schools, close roads and flood flashpoints, and bus senior citizens out of harm’s way.

We started to build vibrant, two-way partnerships so that our information would spur real action. We called this effort impact-based decision-support services – or IDSS.

We have been connecting with communities differently ever since: liaising with decision makers like Craig Fugate at FEMA, who uses our information to determine when and where to pre-position his snow plows and generators before a Nor'easter; or   partnering with Governors such as Jay Nixon, who declared a State of Emergency and activated the National Guard to address the recent flood in Missouri.

Our mission is clear cut: it is not enough to get the prediction right. It is not enough to just inform …. We must deliver actionable information where it truly matters. We have evolved from focusing exclusively on the “W” in NWS to include the “S” part too, the customer service.

The Evolve effort has made us more nimble and responsive to our stake holders, including our employees, our partners in the enterprise and the American people.  I wholeheartedly support this effort.

What does our service outreach look like?

Over the holidays, before severe weather struck communities across the U.S., the National Weather Service went to work – service work.  We provided flood forecasts for the state of Missouri, giving authorities days of lead time. Our local field meteorologists were in regular contact with local authorities, telling them with pinpoint accuracy when the water would hit, where, and with what intensity.  We brought our science to their decision making and, thanks to our collaboration, the Ozark National Scenic Riverways Park evacuated campers, set up barricades for roads at risk of flooding, and closed river access points early.

Our actions in Missouri saved lives, but we also know that lives were lost – across the state and elsewhere.   Hence, we cannot rest with our efforts to improve until every community can say they are environmentally and economically resilient. 

We are standing at the threshold of a new era. And we have unlimited license – all of us in this room – the entire weather enterprise – license to create, to synergize, and to build a weather ready nation. We have the opportunity to take advantage of ever-more advanced analytics; to deploy smaller and frankly more aware weather sensors; or to create those new mobile apps that change the way we distribute and use information.

Our Big Data Project is NOAA’s own way of joining this era of creative collaboration. We are partnering with industry and academia to make our extraordinary volume of data more easily accessible to more people.

As we consider these and other possibilities, let me whet your appetite with a few hypothetical scenarios that could come from greater collaboration: private weather enterprises might layer NOAA weather data, layered on top of information from the financial sector, real estate, or the aviation industry to develop new assessments of weather vulnerability.

The climate enterprise could meld NOAA’s long-term climate forecasts for sea level, heat waves, and droughts with data about air quality, water availability, and other environmental health indicators – so that communities can make better planning decisions and improve their resilience. Companies could layer NOAA data about our seas with intelligence from the Port Authority, the International Trade Administration, private shipping companies, the Coast Guard and more, to create new insights and analysis that make it more feasible and economically viable to tap ocean resources.

Such partnerships and potential synergies are within reach and limited only by our imagination. We have the potential to ultimately produce the information, tools, and services that can assure our ability to respond to high impact weather without loss of life, property or livelihoods.  To do so, though, we must work together.

As we navigate these new currents of opportunity, I want to underscore a fundamental principle – one in which we strongly believe at the National Weather Service: when it comes to innovation, risk is integral to the process. But when it comes to safeguarding our nation, market failure is unacceptable.

With an infinite number of information sources, the American public needs an authoritative voice they can trust to make critical safety decisions. 

We respectfully believe that to be our role.

Beyond the scope of this critical responsibility, there exists considerable space and latitude for innovation across the entire weather enterprise. This community has already shown that it can deliver prosperity, security and great economic benefit to our nation.

I have great faith that, as we approach this new frontier, the public, private, and academic sectors will continue to partner and capitalize on each other’s strengths.

In closing, if I may, I want to ask everyone in this room, yes everyone, to take a moment to look around. What we see is a comprehensive representation of the weather enterprise: staff from NOAA and other federal agencies, leaders in the private sector, researchers from academia, policy advocates from the nonprofit sector, students …. All of us are here!

We are the weather enterprise. We have the answers to the challenges we face – if we focus together. We can Evolve and solve these problems.  As I look around this room, I have confidence in all of you and I am truly excited about our shared future.  Thank you.

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