National Weather Service Refuse to Work But There's No Private Companies Filling in the Gap
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National Weather Service Refuse to Work But There's No Private Companies Filling in the Gap


WASHINGTON - January 23, 2019

Since the Federal government is still limited in its work, individual organizations such as the National Weather Service (NWS) cannot notify residents of weather changes.

NBC Chicago/PrtSc

For residents of St. Louis, Missouri, and Washington, D.C. coming to work surrounded by mountains of snow, it's important that they leave houses equipped with an accurate weather forecast. Massachusetts received a good bit of snow, for which the authorities were not ready, in particular the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. Traffic jams on the roads and in the subway caused a huge crush.

A 12-year-old girl died after a snow fort collapsed while she was playing outside a church on Sunday in suburban Chicago. People there accustomed to the cold weather weren’t expecting a sharp change and the snow curtain that rolled down on their city.

No one doubts the need for the federal government shutdown but no one thought in advance how it would affect people in case of emergency. Weather anomalies in the United States are a common phenomenon--unexpected fires, massive snow, hurricanes, etc.

National Weather Service Refuse to Work But There's No Private Companies Filling in the Gap

During the shutdown, the National Weather Service (NWS) is forcing Americans into do-it-yourself forecasting. Even though the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which oversees the NWS, has claimed that most "operations are in excepted status and therefore remain in place to provide forecasts and warnings to protect lives and property," the compromised activities are already leaving millions in trouble.

National Weather Service Refuse to Work But There's No Private Companies Filling in the Gap

In this case, both sides of the process are to blame. President Trump didn't take care to solve this problem, and federal officials also failed to foresee the situation and take the necessary measures in advance. The creation of private meteorological services is more important than ever. Several NWS regional offices in Tampa Bay, Florida, Springfield, Illinois, Phoenix, Arizona, and the Pacific Northwest remain closed until the shutdown is complete.

Meanwhile, weather forecasts across the country are likely degrading in quality as many of the "non-essential" workers tasked with fact-checking and vetting them are not in the office. This chaos caused by the increasing frequency of blackouts raises a fundamental question about why the government should be in the weather tracking business to begin with. That is, this issue should have been on the agenda before the start of the shutdown, even before any weather anomalies.

Given the huge demand for timely, accurate weather forecasting, it makes little sense why modeling and predicting isn't paid for by the private sector. A little market ingenuity and competition can go a long way in making weather services better, without the shutdown drama and government ineptness.

NWS readings usually err by 2-3 degrees, which leads to much more severe consequences for consumers than forcing them to not to take an umbrella. And now, during the shutdown, the organization cannot provide any data at all.

In 2014, the NWS failed to inform the public and news organizations about a severe thunderstorm throwing "golf ball-size hail and winds over 60 mph" in Washington, D.C., exposing millions of people to life-threatening conditions without any warning. The problem goes the other way, too, forecasting emergency situations when no danger exists, such as the "Biblical" flood warning that water would cover the entire Eastern United States and Canada, despite the that “conditions were so dry that a brush fire was burning in Edison, NJ, southwest of the city." Similarly, for businesses, particularly in agriculture, that rely on accurate weather forecasts, any errors can lead to significant financial losses.

It's almost impossible to predict how the work of private competitors would be organized as the Weather Channel and AccuWeather data are based on the indicators of the main NWS center. In fact, they are the same predictors and can indicate two degrees higher than the main center, but in reality it may be that the temperature is higher by the same two degrees.

Indeed, no one is responsible currently for such data dissemination, but most outlets are reporting on the weather. However, only NWS authorities have the right to provide meteorological information and they are responsible for the data provided.

Financing such companies is not cheap, and there has been a lot of debate about this. Why pay a forecast when you can get it free online or on TV? However, accurate weather information saves all sectors of the economy more than $300,000 per year. Thus meteorologists earned about $50,000 in special forecasts in 2008. And this is given that, according to the center itself, only two of its three forecasts in 2008 were correct. There is a joke that ecologists once calculated that tomorrow’s forecast is correct only about 60% of the time. If they were to simply say that the weather will be the same tomorrow, the accuracy rate would increase to 75%.

Meanwhile, not only cosmonauts and agricultural technicians but also tourists need correct information about the weather. People need the forecast for how to dress, but also to know about their flight, as planes often don’t fly in bad weather. If the weather affects not only moods but also the economy, why not invest in the development of a network of weather stations and more powerful computers to solve the problem with the accuracy of weather forecast? However, the question rests not in the number of stations and not even in the performance of computers.

Completely different devices are involved at different levels of weather forecasting. At the observation stations in the United States meteorologists take readings from outdoor devices that were used to determine the weather in the nineteenth century: mercury thermometers, stainless steel precipitation meters, and hygrometers with human hair to determine humidity.

Encrypted messages containing from 10 to 40 different weather indicators are sent to the regional centers from the observation stations every three hours. The data is collected at the main meteorological center in the US where the forecasts are then built with the latest supercomputers that double the NWS’s accuracy. Why, with such an extensive base of observation stations--more than 1,000 across the country--with such powerful equipment, is it not possible to more accurately predict the weather, even up to a month in advance? As the meteorologists themselves say, it’s not about the number of stations or the quality of the equipment.

The main problem today is the limited scientific base. With the forecast models that we have now, it is no longer possible to achieve greater accuracy in weather forecasting. This problem has reached the point where technical capacity building will give nothing. Yes, with the new data centers will be able to process the data faster and with less errors. However, nothing fundamentally new can be built on the existing model.

Until science takes a step forward, until a qualitative leap is made, weather forecasts for the month ahead will remain a utopia, for two weeks - a theoretical possibility, and for a week - hypothetically probable, but no more. Many modern forecasts are accurate for 3-4 days, and nothing more than coffee grounds fortune telling beyond that. They can say the end of the month will be freezing or unseasonably warm, but don’t take that as something too solid.

As for private weather companies, even though these companies' rely on NWS for basic information, the forecasts given by these private companies are consistently more accurate than those from the federal government according to data compiled by Nate Silver. Competitive Enterprise Institute scholars Iain Murray and David Bier (now at the Cato Institute) note that "the National Weather Service was twelve hours behind AccuWeather in predicting that New Orleans would be affected [by Hurricane Katrina]."

Private companies could go one step further and get the satellites and other equipment necessary to forecast the temperature and track storm patterns. Businesses such as SpaceX are deploying thousands of their own satellites into space, and the trend appears to be global. Even if the government wants to retain control of weather satellites, the large profit potential of private forecasting can ensure that these operations remain self-funding without the possibility of taxpayer assistance. Companies have also proven capable of having their own Doppler radar infrastructure, such as Fox 13's Sky Tower Radar.

Unfortunately, proposals to open up weather modeling and forecasting to private competition have so far failed to gain traction. In 2016, Republican Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) (now the head of NASA) introduced legislation barring NOAA from "starting new programs of record [for weather services] unless such commercial solutions have been exhausted." It also mandated that NOAA "incorporate commercial solutions, including purchases of commercial data streams, to update, augment, or serve as follow-on to its existing programs of record." While this legislation didn't go anywhere, the new Congress has an opportunity to seize the initiative and ensure a better, more reliable forecasting system.

Privatizing the NWS would ensure it was protected from the effects of any future government shutdown, and a competitive marketplace would ensure more accurate data gathering and more precise weather forecasts.

The NWS needn't be compromised by shutdown drama and bureaucratic complacency. More competition could mean that the Back to the Future scenario could become a reality.

Author: USA Really