Monday, November 25, 2019

Washington Post's Article on the Business of Weather

Today, the Washington Post published an article in its business section, written by a meteorologist, pertaining to commercial meteorology and its relationship to NOAA. It is an important subject that is rather complex. While I appreciate Andrew Freedman's expertise and efforts to make that complexity clear (and he did a generally good job), there are some rather unfortunate items in the piece. I'll comment on them one-by-one, with the story's words in italics. 
In 2016, AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions issued a
flash flood warning for the Union Pacific Railroad west of
Topeka, Kansas. The warnings may have prevented a
catastrophic derailment that could have killed the crew
and polluted drinking water. The National Weather
Service did not have a flood warning at the time.
The article states, multiple times, that disasters in the U.S. are worsening because of global warming. My first comment: Disasters are not increasing. I'm not going to reproduce the graphs for the umpteenth time. NOAA's figures, to which the article refers, are, unfortunately, hyping the situation.


Private weather forecasting is a $7 billion industry (and growing), according to a 2017 National Weather Service study. It’s also increasingly testing the federal government’s hold on weather data and warnings. 

Last time I checked, this is America, land of the free (although in Washington many would prefer it be otherwise). It isn't the NWS's job to have a "hold" on weather data and warnings. Let the person who can build a better meteorological mousetrap do so.


Until recently, AccuWeather, Earth Networks, the Weather Co. and other private weather providers relied on the fire hose of data from NOAA’s National Weather Service and satellite arm, as well as NASA and other agencies. Now companies are producing their own data and using analytics in business-savvy ways, tailoring their forecasts to specific real-world problems.

I can't speak for the others but WeatherData, Inc. (the company I founded in 1981) and AccuWeather (which was founded in 1967 and from which I retired in 2018) always "tailored forecasts to specific real-world problems." I have been granted more than 30 patents. The vast majority were weather-related innovations. As an example of cooperation, AccuWeather licensed two of my patents to the NWS -- at no charge -- so it could do its job of serving the public. The article is paints a too pessimistic picture in this regard. 


The oddest line in the story:
For now, NOAA is the only authorized issuer of severe weather watches and warnings in the country, and it still is widely viewed as the leader in accurate weather forecasts and lifesaving warnings.

There is no "authorization"or licensing as to who can issue storm warnings. The NWS must do it as part of its mission but anyone else can, too (see photo above). I don't know how things are "viewed" in the District of Columbia, but at WeatherData, Inc. and at AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions, statistics showed our client-specific storm warnings were much more accurate than the National Weather Service's. 


I agree 100% with this:
According to Mary Glackin, a veteran of senior-level positions at NOAA and IBM who is president-elect of the American Meteorological Society, the agency isn’t innovating quickly enough. 
“When you look at a flash-flood warning, it looks about the same as it did 25 years ago,” Glackin said. “You kind of know a whole lot more about where your Lyft or Uber driver is and when he’s going to get to you than you know about any flash flood in relation to your geography.”
The same is true with regard to tornado and other warnings. That is why WeatherData created, for example, the track-specific storm warnings mentioned early in the article. They have saved billions of dollars for the railroad industry not to mention the lives of train crews. 


“I don’t want to get into a world, frankly, where if you have more resources, you can get a better forecast,” [Scott] Rayder said. “There’s got to be a minimum level of warning and forecasts to protect life and property.”

“Governments are still going to be focused on protecting lives and property,” said ClimaCell’s Goffer. “A future where it costs you money to get a hurricane alert is a bad future, and we shouldn’t be aiming for that.”
This is a non-issue. No one, and I mean no one, is proposing the National Weather Service not issue storm warnings. Many of us, for years, have been urging improvements to NWS warnings to little avail. It seems the bureaucracy and inertia are strong forces in D.C. 


It also makes sense to leave the warning function with the government, she said.
“The NWS is one of the most trusted parts of the federal government, so would [citizens] trust a warning coming from AccuWeather? I think not, I don’t think it’s the same type of thing,” she said. “Abdicating this to a private company and their interests makes no sense to me.”
Mary has always been an outspoken defender of her employer (until very recently, IBM), so I'm not surprised she took an unwarranted shot at AccuWeather, especially since it has an excellent reputation for accurate storm warnings and IBM does not. All I can say in reply is that WeatherData and now AES has a couple hundred Fortune 500 companies and thousands of small clients paying to receive their superior storm warnings (again, see photo and caption at top). 

Very few people get their forecasts and warnings directly from the NWS. They get them from apps (like AccuWeather's) or television meteorologists, for example. 

My position is that the government should issue free storm warnings that improve as rapidly as the science will allow. But, if a commercial company can do better, great. Don't you like having a choice of physicians and home security companies? Why should there be a single source for storm warnings?

The article, while admirable in many aspects, is a bit of a lost opportunity. The author let his politics and personal point of view about global warming get in the way of what could have been an outstanding opportunity to explain important issues. Here are my final thoughts:
  • NOAA desperately needs to stop worrying about partnering with private sector companies. If a solid company can provide raw data that will improve their forecasts and will allow the forecasts resulting, in part, from that data, to be provided to the public at no charge -- do it!
  • NOAA needs to focus its storm warnings on saving lives for the public-at-large. 
  • The NWS's culture of trying to be all things to all people is killing it. That paralysis is why tornado and flash flood warnings will look like they did in the 1960's (no kidding). 
The U.S. storm warning warning system is a Nobel Prize-worthy endeavor but it needs updating. I hope that will occur soon. 

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