The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is creating a lot more work for the National Weather Service.
The weather service plans to send a rotation of up to 88 meteorologists in coming months to the Gulf Coast. Though the meteorologists will only be going to the Gulf Coast a few at a time, some say their deployments could make it harder for the service to respond to severe weather, such as hurricanes headed to other parts of Florida.
Bill Proenza, regional director of the weather service, said the agency uses what he termed "fair weather staffing."
In other words, it employs only the number of meteorologists needed to make forecasts in times of good weather, he said. When severe weather, such as Florida hurricanes or Midwestern floods, strikes, weather service offices beef up their staffs by borrowing from other minimally staffed offices.
"When this occurs, there is high risk that situational awareness will be significantly impaired with the result that critical warnings are missed which directly leads to a much higher risk of loss of life," Proenza wrote in a recent letter to National Weather Service director Jack Hayes.
Proenza has proposed spending $40 million to $50 million to hire three new meteorologists at about 120 weather service offices across the country, creating a team of forecasters to study the latest techniques and stay ready to travel to the next hot spot.
Hayes could not be reached for comment on Thursday, but service spokesman Chris Vaccaro said, "There is no shortage of forecasters to maintain our forecast and warning responsibilities and provide specialized weather support for any situation, predictable or not."
Proenza has a reputation for being outspoken, which has gotten him in hot water in the past. He was replaced as director of the National Hurricane Center in 2007 after complaining about aging equipment.
Daniel Sobien, president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization, has read Proenza's letter and says it's a case of "a senior manager of the National Weather Service acknowledging that there's a problem, and my reading of it is that the system could break if something's not done pretty soon."
Sobien said staffing levels have been an issue for years, but the oil spill "is the catalyst for exposing the impact these shortages have on the NWS's ability to protect American lives and property."
Proenza said most weather forecast offices have two meteorologists working at any given time. It takes about 10 people to maintain that level of staffing for three shifts a day, plus weekends and allowing for vacations, Sobien said.
The forecasters have a strong tradition of assisting offices where the worst weather is hitting — whether it's a hurricane in South Florida or flooding in the Midwest.
"Typically, if there were a hurricane heading to the Tampa Bay area, they would shift four to five people to the Tampa Bay area, maybe more, to help out," Sobien said.
"That's not the only effect now, because you've got this Gulf of Mexico that's full of oil," Sobien added.
Meteorologists are providing key information that helps scientists determine where the oily sheens and tar balls are likely to float next. The forecasts also are important to the ships that have been working in the gulf to clean up and collect the oil.
Even though the oil leak was capped on Thursday — at least for the time being — Sobien predicted meteorologists could be involved with the spill's effects for as much as two years.
The weather service has sophisticated new equipment and computer models that can greatly improve forecasts, but Proenza wrote that without more people, "the ability to make effective use of this pending huge increase of scientific intelligence will be lost."