The Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) provides arguably Australia’s most popular government service, so perhaps it is unsurprising suggestions of major changes to its forecasting prompted plenty of concern.
An email sent to staff last month flagged significant change to its forecasting operations, with more work to be done out of centralised offices in Melbourne and Brisbane.
That prompted fears of a dramatic loss of local knowledge in forecasting, placing regional communities in particular at risk, especially during times of extreme weather.
Firefighters, fishers and other groups rallied together in Hobart last week, protesting against the proposal.
BOM not turfing local meteorologists https://t.co/rgmZKj5I5h The Bureau of Meteorology has no plans to shift local meteorologists around Australia to central headquarters, the head of the agency says. #politas pic.twitter.com/D5rLggM58f
— 420Tasmania (@parker_vmg3) October 22, 2018
But BOM director Andrew Johnson told a Senate Estimates hearing the proposal had been dramatically misinterpreted, and that sending the email in the first place may have been a mistake.
“The reports in the media about our plans to remove local meteorology are completely false,” he said.
“We have consistently, on the public record, made very clear statements concerning as such.”
Dr Johnson said the plan, which is still in its early stages of development, would see local meteorologists remain in state and territory offices but more ‘functional’ work would be automated, and moved to Melbourne.
He said currently many meteorologists spent as much as a third of their time on repetitive, “low-value” tasks while little time was being spent engaging with the community on what the weather means to them.
Get creative with our tropical #cyclone data! 🎨 The interactive portal shows tracks for over 1200 cyclones in the southern hemisphere dating back to 1969 https://t.co/NnZRsMvxvM We've never had a season without at least one cyclone crossing the coast, so make sure you're ready! pic.twitter.com/2VXfzvfUHc
— Bureau of Meteorology, Australia (@BOM_au) October 18, 2018
The plan aims to free up the time of meteorologists by passing more basic forecasting work to supercomputers, with meteorologists then providing more useful local analysis.
“What we’re talking about is a functional shift here, in shifting elements of the process to Melbourne and Brisbane,” he said.
“But we’re not talking about wholesale movements of people … our physical presence in our states and territories is hugely important to us.”
Dr Johnson said he was worried about the bureau’s competitors and added that there were concerns more people might start looking elsewhere to find out whether rain was on the way.
“If we don’t change the way we work, we risk the community increasingly satisfying their decision-making needs from other sources,” he said.
“[Those sources] don’t have the sustained and trusted track record of delivery that we do, in times of national emergency and crisis.”
Fears of a ‘brain drain’ unfounded, argues BOM
Unions have raised concerns a loss of local expertise could leave some communities and industries exposed, relying on forecasters hundreds or thousands of kilometres away.
During estimates, Labor senator Anne Urquhart asked what the changes might mean for those relying on timely advice in specific circumstances.
“Could you expect that someone in Melbourne, monitoring half the country, would actually notice a potential localised frost event in southern WA, that might impact a local farmer?” she asked.
“Would they notice the wind on the waters in Tasmania are slightly stronger than forecast, and now suddenly pose a threat to recreational boaters?”
But Dr Johnson said no matter what system they ended up moving to, local forecasts would pass by the eyes of local experts before being published or broadcast.
“Whatever forecast warning or other service gets delivered to the community, it is [quality controlled] by experts who not only understand the general meteorology but the local consequence,” he said.
“So the role of the local teams in that process will be absolutely critical.”
The plans are still in development, with a business case being put together for delivery later this year.
Dr Johnson said it was not motivated by cost-cutting, but conceded some staff may see pay cuts due to a reduction in shift work and the associated penalty rates.
He said the primary motivation was getting more engagement between meteorologists, the weather they are forecasting, and what it actually means to the people relying on it.
“We want to get more of our people at the shoulder of our customers,” he said.
“Not sitting in an office somewhere disconnected from our customers, not just throwing a forecast out the window and hoping someone will catch it.
“But deeply understanding what that forecast might mean for someone.”