Michael Lewis Gets The Weather Wrong

Headline from Market Watch:
I am a huge fan of Mr. Lewis' The Big Short (both the book and movie), The Blind Side (movie and book) and liked Moneyball (the movie). That makes it especially disappointing that he gets the subject of weather in his new audiobook so very, very wrong.

From the Amazon blurb:
Tornadoes, cyclones, tsunamis... Weather can be deadly - especially when it strikes without warning. Millions of Americans could soon find themselves at the mercy of violent weather if the public data behind lifesaving storm alerts gets privatized for personal gain.

From the Market Watch story:
Instead, and this is the crux of Lewis’s argument, private companies like AccuWeather take the government’s data and repackage it and sell it to corporations and hedge funds. Donald Trump’s nominee to take over NOAA? AccuWeather CEO Barry Myers. This may seem to be a logical choice, until you hear that Myers has little background in meteorology...

These are both so wrong I hardly know where to begin.

A comment about Barry. I have known Barry since the late 1980's. He is a brilliant man who is extremely knowledgeable about weather and how weather works. He is a superb choice to be the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. His nomination is being opposed, in my opinion, because he will bring desperately needed change to the agency as a whole and the National Weather Service in particular. You'll see why that change is needed when you read further. 

First, let's get the nonsense out of the way that it is somehow unfair or immoral for companies like AccuWeather to use National Weather Service (NWS) data. Everyone (individual or company) pays taxes and are thus entitled to use the resources of government. Here are examples:
  • The government builds highways. You and I drive on them and trucking companies, bus companies and others make profits using the highways. The government does not have trucking companies. 
  • The government has a postal service. You and I mail items and companies like Amazon use the postal service to deliver packages and make a profit. 
  • The government runs an Air Traffic Control System. While you and I don't use it, big corporations like American and Southwest Airlines use it to make a profit. 
  • The government runs a Centers for Disease Control. They do not employ your physician. You get to pick your doctor and the doctor treats you for a fee. 
Lewis (and others, unfortunately) seems to believe that weather is somehow "sacred." That only the government should 'do weather.' That is utter nonsense. Commercial meteorology, like any other industry, should be free to use government data and assets to attempt to make a profit by "building a better mousetrap."

The fact is that very few people get their forecasts from the National Weather Service. 

Most people get their forecasts from their local TV station which usually has its own meteorologist. Or, they get the forecast from The Weather Channel which makes its own forecasts. Market Watch, which is a service of Dow Jones, publishes AccuWeather's forecast daily in its Wall Street Journal.

My book, Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather, was written from 2005 to 2010. It extensively praises the NWS for its work in storm warnings. Unfortunately, I could not write the same book today. Why? To cite one reason, the accuracy of National Weather Service tornado warnings has collapsed. Below is the National Weather Service's own graph depicting the collapse in accuracy. The only alteration I have made to the graph is to add the 61% figure for 2016, the latest year for which we have statistics. 
click to enlarge
The accuracy of tornado warnings peaked in 2007 (while the manuscript was being written) and has fallen ever since. 
  • The recent June 26 tornado which brought a "direct hit" to the city of Eureka, Kansas, was also missed by the National Weather Service. This tornado was rated a strong EF-3 tornado. 
This was the photo Market Watch chose to illustrate its article.
The actual death toll was 161. The National Weather Service
failed to effectively warn of this horror.
Concurrently, the amount of "lead time" (the interval from when the warning is issued to when the storm arrives) has also collapsed. Again, the NWS's own graph:
The amount of lead time peaked at 15 minutes (nearly ideal) and has now dropped to about eight -- not enough in many situations.

So, when Mr. Lewis attempts to paint of picture of the public being at risk if private sector companies issued tornado and other warnings for the public, he reveals his lack of knowledge.

It is a shame Michael Lewis has allowed his politics to impair his judgment. He has rushed out a work to try to smear a good man and an outstanding industry that helps protect America's enterprises and its economy.

As the article brushes over, an independent study shows AccuWeather's forecasts are more accurate than the NWS. AccuWeather correctly warned of the Joplin tornado. Barry would attempt to solve the tornado warning problem and other critical issues within the agency.

Barry may represent a threat to the entrenched bureaucracy of the National Weather Service, I get that. But, given the issues the NWS is having, his extensive knowledge and proven managerial talent is exactly what the National Weather Service needs at this time.


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