Thursday, September 6, 2012

Our Nation's Investment in Weather Infrastructure

Many Americans are unaware that the United States is not number one in weather forecasting capabilities. In terms of computer power, forecast model simulation, and (in some cases) instrumentation and sensing, Europe is #1 and other nations are coming on strong.

Worse, it looks like we will be going backward with an impending deterioration in our weather satellite capabilities. We may lose the wind profilers (upward pointing radars that sense the winds above the ground every six minutes).

The U.S. is the acknowledged world leader in adverse weather. Those who have seen my presentations  have seen the figure of $500,000,000,000 in weather-related losses in 2010 (the last year for which figures are available). I believe 2011 was worse.  Even in an economy the size of ours, those are huge numbers.

It is vital that weather forecasting capabilities improve or we are doomed to suffer ever-growing weather-related losses in terms of both lives and economics. That point is made in an op-ed posted on the Washington Post's website this morning:

For those of us who track U.S. weather capabilities, we know two things: ournational monitoring and forecasting capabilities are trending downward and weather is directly linked to a key topic of the presidential campaigns—the economy.
The University Corporation of Atmospheric Research concluded last year that the average annual impact of routine weather on the U.S. economy is estimated at nearly one-half trillion dollars. Couple that with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s recent announcement that July 2012 was the hottest month ever recorded for the nation, and one can quickly understand why more and more businesses are managing risk around weather-related disruptions. This trend should be of key interest to both campaigns given its potential economic impact..
The next Administration should:
* Implement policies that provide the private sector better access to the vast amounts of government Earth observation data that are currently inaccessible;
* Establish an E-Q-Tel organization based on the successful In-Q-Tel model that would help to accelerate Earth-related technologies that advance environmental intelligence; and
* Task the Secretary of Commerce to work with industry and government leaders to develop a national strategy for this business area.
Nothing is better for the nation’s economic crisis than improving our growth engines. In the area of environmental information, a relatively small, strategic investment would go a long way to leverage the existing science investment, benefit U.S. business, spur economic growth, and create a more resilient nation.

I agree 100%. This is a non-partisan issue where our investments will quickly pay for themselves many times over.


  1. This infrastructure discussion is incredibly interesting to me.

    In one respect, I think about the field of experiemental physics and the Fermi Lab Partical Accelerator vs. the new CERN Accelerator.

    In many respects, the CERN exists because Fermi existed before it and paved the way. Lots of groundwork and discovery occurred at Fermi that paved the way for the discoveries that are and will occur at CERN. So, though Fermi was on the cusp of proving something like the Higgs Boson, instead that will occur at CERN, and Fermi stands as a remnant of what it once was, with very little activity (and funding for that matter)... federal land sitting relatively barren and unused in the western suburbs of Chicago.

    From a technology standpoint, I think that the US is at a disadvantage many times. We spend lots of time, effort, and money on R&D and the markets of the world enjoy the savings and finished products once we have borne the brunt of the costs.

    And in many respects, because of the investment in previous (physical) infrastructure, it's not cost effective to upgrade to the top-of-the-line technology.

    The physical infrastructure is even more interesting when you really dig into some of the history of development in Europe vs. America.

    My first thought was that Europe has been "settled" for 800-1000 years... so they're used to tearing down and rebuilding, where as the US has only been "settled" for 150 years... when things started to get overcrowded, people moved West for the first 150 years and we've only started "filling in" in the last 150.

    I think, more likely, it's the fact that much of Europe was ravaged by WWI and WWII, so that much of their infrastructure isn't 100 years old like the US, it's 60 years old. Couple that with the idea that Europe's density has remained fairly constant for the last 200 years and that they've managed the preservation of history, while still moving ahead with new construction.

    That last discussion is really interesting and architecture folks in Chicago have been wrestling with it lately. At what point is a building just beyond its usefulness and thus it should be replaced? And to what extent should historical buildings be preserved? There are many buildings with 1890's and slightly newer construction that have been retro-fit in some respects to modern standards, but they don't hold a candle to today's technology.

    All of that discussion, though interesting, speaks more to the reason of why we are where we are and doesn't speak to solutions.

    I personally think that we need to get to the point where we are at the tip of innovation again, not lagging behind. When you're pushing the edge of what is thought possible, you can break through and discover even more. We'll end up with more Ted Fujita's and much more innovation that way... as opposed to just accepting the status quo, with its inherent risks.

  2. Oh, and don't even get me started on the waste in certain areas of infrastructure... most notably roads and bridges. The road I drive on to get to work every day has basically been under construction for the last 3 years.

    3 years ago, they were patching the old, in-need-of-expansion-and-replacement 2 lane cow-path that has been there for decades and is over capacity.

    2 years ago, they spent $2.5 million repaving this same 2 lane 2.2 mile stretch they had patched the year before (Obama's "stimulus" money). I emailed the DOT about it (it's a state road) because it seemed like such a waste, and they said that this new surface is a great improvement over the previous road and would last much longer in our Chicago winters than the patching. They also said that it would eventually get widened, but it wasn't in the budget.

    Last year, they passed an infrastructure bill, funded by expanded gambling and taxes on other vices and started to widen and modernize this same road, to the tune of $22 million.

    This year, they're finally almost finished with the road and they've repealed the infrastructure bill. So, at this point, we've clearly wasted $2.5 million, and we've spent $22 million that we no longer have a budget for.

    At least I'll get to enjoy the new road now!

  3. I recently read that public infrastructure projects in the U.S. cost four times what they do in Europe because of NIMBY, environmental groups, and the way we do "low bid" (which is nuts).

    Thanks for the comment.


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