I hate to harp on about the Queensland floods. Their direct consequences have been obvious and well publicised. But one particular aspect has been less discussed and is potentially far reaching.
A comment from one observer made it abundantly clear: "Never again will I rely only on our BOM updates."
The BoM are, of course, Australia's Bureau of Meteorology; the folk to which we turn to find out whether we need to take a brolly to work. I've generally been a defender of our much-maligned Weather Bureau because they have a hell of a job to do. The weather is inappreciably random; at least as far as we humans are able to understand it. It is so monumentally organic and ever-changing that I'm amazed we're able to make any sort of forecasts at all.
The Queensland flood enquiry was an attempt to learn how various parties reacted to the crisis and whether anything could've been done better. The role of amateur weather watchers was brought into the spotlight when it was discovered that several members of the WeatherZone online forums gave dire warnings of the massive torrents of water heading down the Toowoomba ranges into the Lockyer Valley. The town of Grantham was even named as a potential target. But by the time the Bureau issued a flood warning for the area, much of the town was destroyed and lives were tragically lost.
Sadly, while the Bureau does issue flood warnings, they asserted during the enquiry that they "don't have a flood mandate" and were ultimately absolved from any negligence, despite flood gauges going through the roof on January 10 this year. What the amateurs could see that the Bureau could not is a question I'm afraid will never be answered.
This is all public knowledge now, of course, but it does raise the question of whether storm chasers and weather enthusiasts should have a more formal arrangement with the BoM regarding severe weather events. After a major shift in public perception, one would imagine the BoM would be open to suggestions, but the whole idea does open up a potential bureaucratic minefield.
By their very name the BoM are bureaucratic with, I assume a strong need for control and reliability of information. (Philosophically, this is almost the opposite of the organic and unpredictable nature of weather.) Unless you have a piece of paper as proof of an appropriate qualification, I imagine it would be very difficult for the BoM to trust the opinion of a person who simply chases storms because they enjoy it, rather than one who takes meteorology seriously enough to study it formally.
The practicalities of reality seem to differ markedly from the apparently sluggish nature of government bureaucracies, but I assume such strict systems are in place to facilitate the presumably thorough checks and balances required for the delivery of reliable information. The cost of this strict adherence to procedure is possibly the omission or lack of vital information delivered quickly enough to be useful - one of, what I believe to be, the BoM's weaknesses and what this entire discussion is about.
Having just toured the US with its globally recognised reputation for crazy severe weather, I think our BoM could learn a thing or two from the National Weather Service over there. Even the respective titles are curious: the BoM is a Bureau, the NWS is a Service. One idea I like is the automatic posting of brief unfiltered reports from observers to the NWS web site for all to see. There is an unlikely possibility that these posts may be unreliable or downright falsified, but surely during a severe weather event (particularly the January floods) an unconfirmed report is better than no report at all.
I don't think I need to espouse the immediateness of the web. Major news breaks first via social media - traditional news outlets seem sluggish in comparison. The online component of the US public's ability to post to their weather service's website is key. I have no idea what sort of technology is being employed by our Bureau to predict our weather, but to print out and fill in a paper form to then post via snail mail to become a storm spotter suggests they are living in the dark ages. That visually, warnings for a mildly severe event and an extremely severe event look almost identical on the BoM's website, suggest they need a big lesson on the effectiveness of visual communication.
Perhaps it's time the Bureau of Meteorology became less of a bureau and more of a service.
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