UW Today

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May 19, 2005

UW expert: Privatizing weather forecasting could damage quality of service

News and Information

Legislation now before Congress would prevent the National Weather Service from providing information that the private sector is supplying, or could supply, to the public. That would seriously damage the quality of the nation’s weather forecasting, says an atmospheric scientist whose research focuses on improving local weather prediction.

“It would cripple the weather service and would be a great disservice to the public,” Cliff Mass, a UW atmospheric sciences professor, said of a bill introduced in April by Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa.

“It would very seriously limit what the weather service does,” Mass said. “The weather service would be out of the business of supplying day-to-day local forecasts and weather information, except for severe weather.”

The bill, referred to as the National Weather Services Duties Act of 2005, in general would prevent the weather service from providing a product or service, other than severe-weather forecasts and warnings, that could be provided by the private sector. Exceptions include situations in which the federal government is obliged by treaty to provide information, such as aviation forecasts, or if the secretary of commerce determines the private sector is unwilling or unable to provide it.

The measure likely would prevent the weather service from issuing local daily and long-term forecasts for cities and towns across the country, currently one of its most-recognized functions, Mass said.

Those forecasts would be replaced by products from private companies that often do not match the quality of the weather service information.

“In addition, the private sector doesn’t have to forecast for every place in the United States,” he said. “The weather service does.”

Private sector meteorologists tend to work from a central location and often lack the knowledge of specific cities and towns that would allow them to tailor accurate and detailed local forecasts for all the places where the National Weather Service maintains offices.

So while a private meteorologist working in Pennsylvania can look at radar and satellite data to see weather systems approaching a city such as Seattle, it is unlikely that person has a clear understanding of how the region’s mountain ranges, for instance, will affect local temperature or wind and rainfall patterns.

In a statement on its Web site, Pennsylvania-based AccuWeather defends Santorum’s bill as one “that would guarantee unfettered public access” to all data, analysis, forecasts and warnings received, collected, created or prepared by the weather service and its parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Mass said the private sector has a very important role to play, from providing local TV and radio weather forecasts to supplying generalized weather data on cable TV and tailored forecasts for specific industries. But he added that weather service forecasters cannot maintain their skills by just predicting relatively rare severe weather events.

“Only by daily forecasting can their skills be maintained,” he said.

He said private sector efforts to limit the information the weather service can provide to the public is the same as if Federal Express or United Parcel Service demanded that the U.S. Postal Service be barred from delivering mail.

“Just as in parcel delivery, I think there’s plenty of work for everyone,” he said.

Mass noted that the weather service and NOAA, with their extensive system of satellites and computers, collect and provide the basic information the private companies must have to create their weather products.

The weather service also conducts sophisticated computer modeling the private companies rely on and cannot conduct for themselves.

“In terms of data, the greatest volume is from satellites. The federal government also collects a vast array of other observations on which the entire weather prediction enterprise is based,” Mass said.

“We’re paying for all of them, and if this legislation is passed we’d have to pay for them again through the private sector.”