During my 40 years as a meteorologist, I have a lot of experience with hurricanes and other major storms. I have observed that hurricanes tend to bring odd ideas to the surface. When you combine an earthquake, the odd ideas – if my email is any indication – really start flowing. Beyond the theories about airplane vapor trails and remote control of earthquakes, perhaps the oddest idea floating around now is that that the U.S. National Weather Service should be shut down or deeply scaled back.
Saturday evening, a friend forwarded a Fox News op-ed calling for the NWS to be abolished. That op-ed, if you wish to read it, is here.
It is easy to say, “abolish the National Weather Service.” Explaining why that is a bad idea is a bit more complicated, so I hope you will bear with me.
The National Weather Service of the United States (NWS) plays a vital role that would be impossible for the private sector to fill. That is due to the unique nature of weather.
Because weather does not respect national borders and because the weather moves around the world, all nations must cooperate in order for effective forecasts to be made. Private companies cannot legally conduct foreign policy; that is a role of the federal government. The federal government must create the essential international meteorological infrastructure and data sharing agreements.
So that objects in space do not collide, the federal government (NASA) manages the weather satellite program and coordinates with other nations’.
It is unlikely that foreign governments would share their data with a U.S. private company and vice-versa. The U.S. relies on Meteosat (Europe and Africa), MTSAT (Asia and Australia), and GeoSat (East Asia and Pacific) to cover the world so we can forecast what is coming at us. I doubt any U.S. company would want to replace this infrastructure. The price tag would be well into the tens of billions of dollars.
Current federal policy (set by the FCC) will not allow private sector companies to run 10cm weather radars. For technical reasons, 10cm are vital in measuring precipitation. We must have a federal entity for that.
There has to be an entity to coordinate meteorological measurements so they can be used by all nations. That is the World Meteorological Organization, open only to governmental entities.
Beyond policy, I have philosophical reasons for supporting the mission of the National Weather Service.
Our federal government has a legitimate and important role in public safety (that is why we have a military and a Federal Bureau of Investigation) and creating infrastructure (interstate highways) that anyone can use. Given that philosophical position, it makes all the sense in the world to have the federal government create, maintain, and improve the meteorological infrastructure. Want to know the forecast, the current temperature, or the river stage? Just go the NWS web site and you can receive that information (paid for by your taxes) free. Or, if you prefer, you can go to AccuWeather’s web site or watch your local television meteorologist for a forecast.
In most nations, the national meteorological service does not issue storm warnings, at least as we think of them. Our NWS provides warnings that saves lives.
Since many businesses have need of meteorological services that differ from the general public, the private sector weather industry in the U.S. fills that role. In many nations, the national meteorological service provides special services for businesses for a substantial fee and there is little or no competition. England and France are good examples of this. The fees their businesses pay for special government services are far higher than U.S. businesses pay for similar services. So, some foreign companies contract with U.S. private sector weather companies for those services. That improves the U.S.’s balance of trade. Canada had the British/French model and has backed away from it in favor of a public-private sector partnership like the one enjoyed in the United States.
Private sector weather companies like AccuWeather take the NWS data that is available to everyone and apply our technology and skills to it to create products that are uniquely tailored to the needs of our business clients. Businesses pay us for the value that we bring to their operations. Private sector weather companies, create jobs and pay taxes on our profits. Through this arrangement, the U.S. taxpayer is not paying for “corporate welfare” – i.e., special forecasts and services made by the government for individual businesses.
But, we face a challenge in this period of likely tightening federal budgets.
The amazingly accurate forecasts of Irene’s path were made possible because the NWS launched special weather balloons at an unprecedented rate last week and flew hurricane hunter and data gathering aircraft around the storm. Since we now know that making this investment directly results in a more accurate forecast, I believe Congress should make the money available to do this routinely in major weather situations and, perhaps, acquire additional data-gathering aircraft.
Can some things in the NWS be cut and resources reallocated? Yes, but on balance, we need to invest more in the NWS and its data gathering and distribution. We need to make smart investments in research that, for example, will allow us to much more accuarately and consistently forecast the strengthening and weakening of hurricanes, a vital topic in view of our overforecast of Irene’s intensity. At present, weather science only has a moderate understanding of how hurricanes strengthen and weaken.
By making targeted investments, we can fully leverage the rapid increase in forecast and warning accuracy to save lives and make the economy grow.
The National Weather Service is one of the (unfortunately few) jewels of the federal government. It is one of the rare areas where there really is a “multiplier” effect: Dollars invested result in far greater numbers of dollars being created through lives saved and economic productivity increased.