By Alejandro de la Garza
January 3, 2019

Around the country, from flood-prone lowlands to Tornado Alley, weather can be deadly serious. Timely warnings from the National Weather Service (NWS), the federal agency tasked with keeping track of weather across the United States, are key to preserving human life in extreme weather events. Now, as the government shutdown drags into its 13th day, some are wondering if the partially-staffed NWS is still reliable, or if the service is even operating at all.

Fortunately, much of the weather forecasting operations of the NWS’ parent agency — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) — are exempted from the shutdown. Forecasters at local and national weather centers, along with technical and engineering staff, continue to provide the forecasts and warnings essential to safeguarding lives and property, though many staff are currently working without pay. Experts stress that Americans can continue to trust the predictions coming out of the NWS, despite a partially shut down federal government.

“One thing you can say about weather service employees is they’re the most dedicated people in the world,” says Dan Sobien, president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization. “Even without getting paid and even with the uncertainty of whether or not they’re going to be able to pay their own mortgage or rent, they’re going to go out of their way to do an excellent job and put out the best forecasts and best warnings that they can.”

However, that doesn’t mean that the shutdown is consequence-free for federal meteorology. Though the effects of the government shutdown are not manifest in the accuracy of daily forecasts, the shutdown could affect vital long-term improvements to American weather prediction.

Scientists and engineers working on projects unrelated to the day-to-day safeguarding of American lives and property have been sent home. Efforts within NOAA and the NWS to improve weather modeling have been paused, as have continuing training programs for weather staff, both of which are essential to improving long-term weather prediction. For some forecasters, the standoff over the border wall is immaterial compared to the real progress that is being lost due to the shutdown.

“I don’t know how many lives you’re going to save by building a wall or how many lives it would cost from not building a wall,” says Sobien. “I guarantee it’s going to cost lives if these people don’t get the training and the opportunities to develop new and better ways of forecasting the weather.”

The effects of the government shutdown are also being felt across the broader American meteorological community. The American Meteorological Society’s annual meeting, among the most important conferences in the field, is scheduled for Jan. 6 in Phoenix, Ariz. Between 25 and 30 percent of its attendees are federal employees. Their shutdown-enforced absence will have a noticeable effect on this year’s progress in operational meteorology, experts say.

“It is the meteorological conference of the year. It’s where those ideas are hatched, where colleagues get together and discuss issues that create solutions,” says Sobien. “We’re able to give people 12 or 13 minutes lead time on, for instance, tornadoes … that’s because people went to conferences 50 years ago.”

The lack of government attendance also means that NOAA scientists will likely miss an important opportunity to receive feedback on their newest weather models from scientists in the larger atmospheric sciences community, explains Fred Carr, professor emeritus at the School of Meteorology at the University of Oklahoma. That absence will mean more delays, or even a lost chance to receive important input that could make new models more effective.

But government shutdowns, like the ones in 2018 and 2013, can have impacts even beyond stymied research progress. Meteorologists, along with hundreds of thousands of federal employees, are facing personal financial costs as they wait to get back to work.

The NWS is among the best places to practice meteorology, according to Sobien. But for scientists, the knowledge that their jobs can be affected by political power struggles can make federal work less appealing. Industry experts like Sobien worry that the next generation of researchers, both in meteorology and other vital specialized fields, might become less likely to see a viable career in public service given the shutdown.

For now though, the furloughed scientists and engineers at NOAA are just eager to get back to their job. “Once the shutdown ends, they’ll get back to work,” says Carr. “They’re passionate about improving the weather forecast.” For Americans dealing with anything from unexpected snowstorms to catastrophic hurricanes, forecasters’ predictions could make all the difference.

Write to Alejandro de la Garza at alejandro.delagarza@time.com.

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