Energy & Environment

Report finds NOAA ‘sharpiegate’ statement ‘not based on science’ but political influence

Leaders at the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) violated the agency’s scientific integrity policy by issuing a statement in September contradicting the National Weather Service shortly after President Trump said Hurricane Dorian was headed toward Alabama.

“The development of the statement was not based on science but appears to be largely driven by external influence from senior Commerce [Department] officials who drafted the Sept. 6 statement,” the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) concluded in its report, which was requested by NOAA following public pressure.

NOAA wrote in a Sept. 6 statement that “tropical storm-force winds from Hurricane Dorian could impact Alabama,” contradicting a Sept. 1 statement from the National Weather Service in Birmingham, Ala., that said the state would see “no impacts” from the hurricane. 

The statement came after Trump insisted that Alabama could bear the brunt of the 2019 hurricane, which ultimately landed on the East Coast. In making his claim, Trump used a marked-up projection map produced by NOAA that conflicted with information given by weather forecasters.

“The administration made matters worse by refusing to correct this known error in real time, and even taking steps to obstruct the career scientists and officials trying to do this work,” said Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), who had been among those calling for an investigation.

“It will be clear to anyone reviewing the accounts captured in this highly credible, independent Scientific Integrity report that the political leaders who interfered in our emergency response system need to publicly apologize or resign,” he added.

In its response to the report, NOAA said: “Scientific integrity is at the core of NOAA’s work and is essential for maintaining the public’s trust in the agency’s ability to provide accurate, thorough and timely science.”

The agency said it largely agreed with the report’s findings, which focus most heavily on NOAA head Neil Jacobs and his deputy chief of staff and head of communications, Julie Roberts.

“As the head of the agency and the director of communications, Dr. Neil Jacobs and Julie Roberts should take responsibility for the statement,” the report said.

But, it added, “they purported to believe it was out of their hands. It is important…to take into account the circumstances under which the Sept. 6 statement was developed and released.”

Investigators said they attempted to interview two Commerce Department officials involved in the drafting and release of the statement but were denied access by NOAA.

The NAPA investigation is one of three probes into what was dubbed “Sharpiegate” in reference to Trump’s illustrations on NOAA graphics. The House Science Committee and the Commerce Department’s Office of Inspector General are also investigating. The Commerce Department oversees NOAA.

The NAPA report concludes by saying NOAA staff should undergo training on scientific integrity as part of annual ethics trainings and that the agency should formalize an agreement with the Commerce Department to guide how it helps draft NOAA communications.

Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a group that had called for the investigation, said that while the NAPA recommendations may be useful, the lack of any consequences for NOAA or Commerce staff do little to ensure there won’t be future political interference.

“This is important stuff. We’re about to be in another hurricane season and we’re going to have more natural disasters like pandemics and there don’t seem to be any consequences for manipulating the science,” he said, “and that puts real communities, real people at risk.”

Updated at 6:25 p.m. 

Tags Donald Trump Hurricane Dorian National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Weather Service Paul Tonko Sharpiegate

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