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One-on-one with new National Weather Service Director Ken Graham

Ken Graham is the new director of the National Weather Service.
Ken Graham is the new director of the National Weather Service.

Ken Graham is in just his third week of his tenure as director of the National Weather Service. You can read more about his background here, but he most recently served as director of the National Hurricane Center.

Graham took some time to talk with Radio IQ Meteorologist Nick Gilmore about his hopes for the agency – as it deals with a changing climate and the continued need to make forecasts understandable and usable to the public.

Nick Gilmore: Congratulations on taking over the National Weather Service. I’m sure that’s an incredible feeling; what has it been like for you transitioning into that role?

Ken Graham: It’s incredible. I mean the whole time just feeling just absolutely humbled by the whole thing. I mean, just starting off at this agency just about 28 years ago as an intern meteorologist and a journey forecaster and then to think now as the director of the National Weather Service is absolutely just humbling.

NG: I’d say so. That’s an amazing thing. You’re taking over the National Weather Service after leading the National Hurricane Center. What did you learn there that you think will help you oversee all of NWS?

KG: Spending 10 years as the Meteorologist-in-Charge at the Weather Forecast Office in New Orleans; you have a certain view of everything. And that was a busy office. I mean, you think about several states and the amount of hurricanes, the amount of winter weather and tornadoes; that was great prep for the National Hurricane Center director job. But, going to the Hurricane Center – it’s a bigger view. You really start looking at not just a larger portion of the coastline and more states, but it was an international view as well. I think it’s good training for this job as well because this one of course covers the entire Weather Service, the entire nation, but also such a significant international component as we work with other nations across the globe to look at common issues. Common issues associated with a changing climate. Common issues associated with assessing risk and getting warnings out so people can make big decisions.

Flooding at the Richmond Train Station caused by Agnes in June 1972.
Mark Fagerburg
Library of Virginia
Flooding at the Richmond Train Station caused by Agnes in June 1972.

NG: We’re right in the middle of hurricane season and here in Virginia we just had the 50th anniversary of Agnes, which brought some of the most devastating flooding to Richmond that that city has ever seen. Can you talk about why all communities – from those on the coast to those further inland – need to be aware of the potential threats during the season?

KG: Everybody has to be prepared throughout the entire hurricane season and also throughout the year for these big, heavy rain events. It’s not just coastal – you have to look at where you live. Know your risk if you’re in one of those mountainous areas that you can get some of that flash flooding or near a river, low-lying area – be really mindful of those risks and be prepared for that heavy rainfall and that flooding. And most important, listen for our warnings.

NG: Jumping off that, you talk about the warnings and I feel like that is something the Weather Service in recent years has really tried to focus on – is making those warnings as useful to people as possible. How do you see the next step in that process?

KG: We’re really going to start pushing for probabilistic information’s just part of it. One of the most frequent questions I’ve always received when deployed to emergency management offices, working with emergency managers – they’re always like, “Hey Ken, what’s the worst case scenario?” And it’s a very good question because you want to make decisions based on what could happen in a reasonable sense. So, we’re going try to put some science behind that and look at probabilistic information when it comes to what the impacts could be. But the part that I wanted to mention is social science. We’re really getting more active in the social sciences because even a perfect forecast doesn’t do much good if it’s not understood.

NG: The Weather Service’s mission is to protect life and property. And you already talked about a changing climate, extreme weather is becoming more prevalent. How do you think NWS can rise to that mission as it seems to get more and more difficult?

KG: Looking back at the last couple years; you think about the fire seasons have just become so dramatic, so more frequent. We’ve had record hurricane seasons –ran out of names in 2020 and ran out of names in 2021. We’ve got a pretty big, active tornado season as well. You look at all these different aspects and we rise to that occasion every single time. And if you think about as we go into the future with the increasing risks; we’re having those conversations about how do we perform mutual aid and help each other out more as we get busier with time. And we’re having some of those conversations about how the infrastructure has to continue to improve to be able to handle that workload and to handle that additional risk that we’re going to have to warn for.

NG: With that in mind, if you could go to Congress or the president and they grant you any request for the agency, what would it be?

Nick Gilmore
NOAA's WP-3D Orion Hurricane Hunter plane.

KG: Look, of course the first answer is always we will work within the president’s budget of course. But look, if you talk to any meteorologist, they’ll all tell you the same thing. We really want data. If you look at trying to get observations, whether it’s satellite observations, buoys, information on the ground, surface analysis – just anything we can get when it comes to data. All that data is so critical. I do want to mention, even going back to the previous job, the Hurricane Hunters. Just getting the Hurricane Hunter data into the models makes tracks 10-15% better; intensity 15-20% better. Data is so important when it comes to getting that information into the models. And remember, models [are] not necessarily the final forecast. Models [are] guidance. We look at ensembles, we look at multiple different solutions of those models and it’s that forecaster, that meteorologist, the hydrologist, the engineers that put that together into something that’s actionable. That’s what makes this so special.

NG: Ken Graham is the new director of the National Weather Service. Thank you so much for joining me.

KG: Oh you bet. I enjoyed it.

Nick Gilmore is a meteorologist, news producer and reporter/anchor for RADIO IQ.