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As the Bureau of Meteorology deals with cuts and delayed upgrades, it is breaching its international obligations for weather data. By Rick Morton.

‘It’s kind of horrific’: BoM cuts compromise forecasts

A meteorological official with a weather balloon on the edge of the Gibson Desert in Western Australia.
A meteorological official with a weather balloon on the edge of the Gibson Desert in Western Australia.
Credit: Nine / Glen Campbell

Bureau of Meteorology management has threatened the organisation’s global status after unilaterally deciding to further cut costs in its forecasting and observation programs, in breach of requirements set by the World Meteorological Organization. 

One meteorologist at the bureau, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said it was now “an open secret that we are not meeting our WMO obligations” on upper atmosphere observation.

“We have been told by several senior people that we are now not meeting our WMO requirements, but I also get the sense that it is not considered to be a big deal,” they said.

“It’s kind of horrific, the effect that it would have on our model quality as well as just our ability to add our own expertise on top of the computer models. It is crazy to me.”

This week The Saturday Paper spoke with a dozen current forecasters at the BoM. They are variously “horrified” and “alarmed” by the apparent carelessness of management on matters of accuracy and science.

There is now a litany of projects where the BoM has cut back to the degree that data is being compromised or where upgrades and computer infrastructure are so far behind that they are affecting outcomes.

“If you think your public forecasts have gotten worse, that’s because they have,” one meteorologist says. “The public forecast gets produced twice a day, at 4am and 4pm. The national production team is shockingly small for the task at hand. 

“You’ve got to consider every single public forecast produced by the BoM: every town, city, district and state forecast, every variable within that including temps, dewpoints, winds, precipitation, weather type et cetera, then there are coastal forecasts including winds and sea and swell, and then all the warnings. How do they handle such a task? Automation and bureaucracy through decision matrices.” 

The forecasts now available on the bureau website or mobile app are almost exclusively the result of a “model of models” that spits out predictions based on weightings given to various global models and how accurate they have been in the previous 30 days. If meteorologists know a forecast is likely to be wrong based on a flaw in the automated model, they must argue with superiors to change it. Often, they say, they are prevented from doing so.

“Say, then, that in Melbourne the max temperature that was generated by models was going to be too high, or the models were saying showers all day when it really wasn’t going to happen,” a meteorologist says.

“Even if a forecaster in national production knew this was the case, and even if it would take them five minutes to fix, it would not satisfy the decision matrix for that day, and they would not be allowed to fix it. I stress, even if it would take them five minutes.”

In a statement, the BoM said its forecasts are better now than five years ago and that “it is an established fact that automated forecasts are more accurate than those that have been modified via human intervention”. 

This is only true for longer range predictions, however, and for “forecast lead times of less than 24 hours, forecaster intervention is proven to improve forecast quality when needed”.

Another consistent and major concern is about the weather balloon program, which directly affects data collected for the climate record and provides crucial upper atmosphere inputs for the forecast models used by meteorologists.

In some locations across Australia, the BoM has already more than halved weather balloon launches after moving to an automated system, shuttering regional observation field office stations and making redundant the observers who worked there. 

In places such as Cobar, Wagga Wagga, Mount Gambier and Albany there is no current weather balloon data. Others are missing data for some days. Before BoM rationalisation, most stations launched two balloons a day. Now they are lucky to launch five a week. 

The Saturday Paper can reveal a plan by BoM leadership to extend the reduction in balloon launches to capital cities, to save money and move to a “launch on request” model after a morning release. This plan has been fiercely contested internally and may have been delayed after an offer from the aviation division of the bureau to fund the twice-daily launches from its budget until the end of the financial year.

The World Meteorological Organization said it was unable to comment but a spokesperson for the BoM conceded it only “partially meets” its WMO obligations for the frequency of upper-air observations. The spokesperson said the rest of its upper-air program, which includes balloons, does meet guidance.

“Everywhere around the world balloons are launched twice daily at more or less synchronised times,” a meteorologist employed by the BoM said on the condition his identity not be revealed. 

“Not only is this data the only way to get a real idea of what is actually going on in the vertical profile of the atmosphere, it provides crucial observations for the NWP [numerical weather prediction] models.

“The NWP models are going to become significantly worse across Australia, which in turn affect forecast quality, especially with public weather relying on pure model data so much lately.”

Another meteorologist, who contacted this newspaper after last weekend’s revelations about a “toxic culture” at the BoM, was similarly alarmed about the cuts to the balloon program. “They are vital to our model inputs, verification and updating of severe weather forecasts, especially for thunderstorms,” this person said. “The bureau has decided to cut upper-air observations for cost despite this stupid rebrand.”

While a three-year rebranding program ate into company resources and time, resulting in a new logo and a desire to stop referring to the bureau as the BoM, The Saturday Paper can reveal that leaked documents show an internal systems transformation called ROBUST has run further and further behind schedule.

 This program – worth hundreds of millions of dollars – had been funded by a one-off injection of undisclosed money from the federal government following a cyber-attack by foreign spies in 2015. 

Many of the elements of the project have been needed for some time, but staff with knowledge of the time line say money has been wasted and features that were promised have not been delivered. A much needed secure website is due for beta testing now, with launch by the end of the year, but an internal “forecast milestone dates” document shows this is also running late. 

A powerful new supercomputer was installed in late 2016, and an upgrade was due to begin in 2018, but a “decision was made to delay” this, so that the entire facility could be moved to a “new, modern, highly resilient data centre”. It will not be ready until the end of next year or the year after.

“There do not seem to be a lot of concrete outcomes from this project,” a staff member says. “There is a supercomputer which has been sitting mainly idle for years because it isn’t yet ready for use. The feeling that some of us get is that this is a classic big IT project which has gone off the tracks.” 

The existing high-power computer system is running at near capacity and parts of the BoM transformation program and other functions have been clipped or delayed as a result. There are two special projects under way at the bureau – ROBUST and the Public Service Transformation, essentially a centralisation project – and multiple staff have noted that neither seems to understand what the other is doing. 

The Saturday Paper has been told that although ROBUST is behind schedule, it is still on budget.

Management seems to concede the point about waste in its corporate plan released this year. It says it will “implement a mechanism to provide oversight of all bureau activities in a more consistent way to ensure resources are allocated to priority activities for maximum return on investment”. 

According to the milestone time line document, these are just some of the elements of the “multi-year project” that are running behind schedule: a new data platform, data migration and archiving, a security project, upgrades to the balloon launchers system, physical security upgrades at observation sites, workforce planning and analysis, regional office hub completion and pilot upgrades to the flood warning network. Curiously, procurement for this project only began halfway through this year, after the catastrophic flooding in Lismore. 

The BoM has stated in its corporate plan that it must “continue to transform the bureau’s observations network to ensure the most timely and accurate provision of information and enhanced maintenance, including through the consolidation of remote observing sites, increase in site automation and use of observing hubs and the use of sensors to help predict and diagnose system faults”. 

Another particularly vivid example of the mess behind closed doors at the Bureau of Meteorology is an 18-month-long development project to upgrade the resolution of the national forecast grid from six kilometres to three kilometres. Victoria and Tasmania already had a three-kilometre grid, as this is important for smaller jurisdictions with lots of topographical features such as mountains. 

Late last year, however, the team leading the development realised it was a lot more difficult than they first conceived and, arguing that it was more important to have a nationally consistent grid, aborted the project and reverted Victoria and Tasmania to six-kilometre grids. As a result, the project to improve resolution actually led to a downgrade in resolution.

“They tried to bury it in a routine update email that came out in September or October last year,” a forecaster said.

“Basically they said, ‘We’re not going to pursue three kilometres anymore, it’s too difficult.’ And although I felt bad for the team at the time, the really scandalous thing is they didn’t update any of the other time lines. They proceeded as if it didn’t change anything, but it changed everything.”

For example, the new Australian fire danger rating system, which officially began at the start of September this year, was designed based on a three-kilometre weather grid, not a six-kilometre grid.

“And so, without [a smaller grid], we have to do a lot of workarounds to get our forecasts into that system, get the fire dangers out of the system back into our system,” a meteorologist said.

“It was originally designed to be all sort of in-house, in one thing, and easy to manage. And now we have to do this quite complicated workaround, which was being worked out right up to the last minute.” 

Meteorologists stressed that a downgrade in forecast resolution is not the same as a downgrade in quality. Although that is the case only if there are enough staff to iron out any kinks. “And so, the problem with a lot of this,” one said, “is that, well, there aren’t enough of us. There’s not enough of us who are experienced and not enough of us generally.”

Last week, The Saturday Paper reported the BoM was down about 24 meteorologists. That figure is actually closer to 30. It is the Bureau of Meteorology that decides how many meteorologists to train each year, too, and, according to sources, it is “frequently wrong” about the demand.

“So, when we talk about decision matrices or rubrics to justify making changes to the model predictions, it’s really just a way for them to try and manage or compensate for not having enough people,” a meteorologist said.

“So, for at least the last decade they haven’t even met the attrition rate, you know, accounting for retirements and people changing career.”

Internally, there is a view among key staff – the scientists, meteorologists, subject matter experts and so on – that management is out of touch and simply does not care about their work. When the rebranding project led to humiliation, it was the forecasters who were left to face the public and attempt to explain the decision that had been made by leadership.

Despite revelations about the bureau’s toxic work culture, including that employees had been hospitalised with workplace stress, management continued to claim the “89 per cent of Bureau employees reported that their immediate supervisor cares about their health and wellbeing, which is higher than the APS [Australian Public Service] overall”.

But The Saturday Paper has obtained internal results from the latest official staff census that contradict this narrative. In the communications division, for example, just 44 per cent of staff say they are satisfied with their job. Fewer than one-third state that “my agency really inspires me to do my best work”. 

Attitudes towards leadership are worse, with just 17 per cent agreeing with: “My … manager creates an environment that enables us to deliver our best.”

Almost one-quarter (24 per cent) of all communications staff surveyed said they had been bullied or harassed in the past 12 months. A further 12 per cent were “not sure”.

Collectively, these results are the worst on record for the division. It is understood the results in the national production meteorology team and in aviation are similarly bad.

As part of the BoM rebranding effort – which management insists was just a “refresh” – certain public-facing employees were told they would have to wear a newly designed bureau uniform. When the polo shirts arrived, however, many women on staff realised the largest size of shirt was “smaller than would fit the average Australian woman”.

Following last week’s bad publicity, the uniform mandate was quietly put on ice. At least for now.

The bureau confirmed in a statement that both its supercomputer upgrade and the mammoth ROBUST transformation are running about one year behind schedule.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 29, 2022 as "‘It’s kind of horrific’: BoM cuts compromise forecasts".

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