The Fragility Of Scientific Infrastructure

While the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico must be the primary concern, it also reminds us that scientific infrastructure, despite what is commonly depicted in movies and on the dangblasted teevee machine, is far more fragile than we realize (boldface mine):

Hurricane Maria and its 100-plus-mph winds demolished the main weather radar that forecasters use to monitor storms in Puerto Rico. As of yet, there is no known time frame for replacing the radar while more than two months of hurricane season remain.

The radar, located in the mountains of south central Puerto Rico — about 20 miles from San Juan, scanned the sky in all directions and signaled to forecasters exactly where rain was located, how heavy it was, and where it was headed. It could also detect damaging winds. But just before 6 a.m. Sept. 20, it abruptly stopped operating just as the Category 4 behemoth and its violent winds slammed into the island.

Photos posted to Twitter by the National Weather Service office in San Juan show all that remains of the radar is the tower to which it was connected. The dome, which housed the radar scanner, is gone — completely severed from the mount.

“[W]e currently have no estimate for restoration of the radar,” Susan Buchanan, a National Weather Service spokeswoman, said in an email to The Washington Post. “We are estimating it could take at least 30 days to properly assess the condition of the radar itself and the surrounding infrastructure of the island. Impassable roads and bridges would delay both the assessment and restoration. Once we can assess the radar, we will have a better idea of a repair timeline.”

“We have not been in a situation like this before,” she added….

With the radar down for an indefinite amount of time, forecasters lack a critical tool for tracking storms. John Morales, who was a lead forecaster at the National Weather Service’s San Juan office in the 1990s, called the implications “gigantic.”

It sends us back to the Third World,” said Morales, now the chief meteorologist for the NBC television affiliate in Miami.

Morales, a Puerto Rico native, explained that the island frequently experiences rainfall that is intensified by its complex topography. “Tropical rainfall rates can slide into the excessive range quite easily,” he said. “In terms of [issuing] flash flood warnings, it’s a tremendous detriment not to have radar.”

He said the lack of radar in the Dominican Republic and Haiti has long made it extremely difficult for those countries to issue timely warnings. Now he’s concerned about what will happen if another tropical weather system moves into Puerto Rico or elsewhere in the eastern Caribbean.

Between Antigua and Cuba, the only two places with functioning radar, there’s an enormous void. “It’s a huge deal,” Morales said.

Meanwhile, we seem to have no problem increasing the defense budget by $70 billion per year. But redundancy in our scientific infrastrcture? NEVAR. Instead of military Keynesianism (or military Lernerism. More about that tomorrow!), we need weather and science Keynesianism.

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