Should the National Weather Service Be Scaled Back?

During my 40 years as a meteorologist, I have a lot of experience with hurricanes and other major storms. I have observed that hurricanes tend to bring odd ideas to the surface. When you combine an earthquake, the odd ideas – if my email is any indication – really start flowing. Beyond the theories about airplane vapor trails and remote control of earthquakes, perhaps the oddest idea floating around now is that that the U.S. National Weather Service should be shut down or deeply scaled back.
Saturday evening, a friend forwarded a Fox News op-ed calling for the NWS to be abolished. That op-ed, if you wish to read it, is here.
It is easy to say, “abolish the National Weather Service.” Explaining why that is a bad idea is a bit more complicated, so I hope you will bear with me.
The National Weather Service of the United States (NWS) plays a vital role that would be impossible for the private sector to fill. That is due to the unique nature of weather.
Because weather does not respect national borders and because the weather moves around the world, all nations must cooperate in order for effective forecasts to be made. Private companies cannot legally conduct foreign policy; that is a role of the federal government. The federal government must create the essential international meteorological infrastructure and data sharing agreements.
So that objects in space do not collide, the federal government (NASA) manages the weather satellite program and coordinates with other nations’.
It is unlikely that foreign governments would share their data with a U.S. private company and vice-versa. The U.S. relies on Meteosat (Europe and Africa), MTSAT (Asia and Australia), and GeoSat (East Asia and Pacific) to cover the world so we can forecast what is coming at us. I doubt any U.S. company would want to replace this infrastructure. The price tag would be well into the tens of billions of dollars.
Current federal policy (set by the FCC) will not allow private sector companies to run 10cm weather radars. For technical reasons, 10cm are vital in measuring precipitation. We must have a federal entity for that.
There has to be an entity to coordinate meteorological measurements so they can be used by all nations. That is the World Meteorological Organization, open only to governmental entities.
Beyond policy, I have philosophical reasons for supporting the mission of the National Weather Service.
Our federal government has a legitimate and important role in public safety (that is why we have a military and a Federal Bureau of Investigation) and creating infrastructure (interstate highways) that anyone can use. Given that philosophical position, it makes all the sense in the world to have the federal government create, maintain, and improve the meteorological infrastructure. Want to know the forecast, the current temperature, or the river stage? Just go the NWS web site and you can receive that information (paid for by your taxes) free.  Or, if you prefer, you can go to AccuWeather’s web site or watch your local television meteorologist for a forecast.
In most nations, the national meteorological service does not issue storm warnings, at least as we think of them. Our NWS provides warnings that saves lives.
Since many businesses have need of meteorological services that differ from the general public, the private sector weather industry in the U.S. fills that role.  In many nations, the national meteorological service provides special services for businesses for a substantial fee and there is little or no competition. England and France are good examples of this. The fees their businesses pay for special government services are far higher than U.S. businesses pay for similar services.  So, some foreign companies contract with U.S. private sector weather companies for those services. That improves the U.S.’s balance of trade. Canada had the British/French model and has backed away from it in favor of a public-private sector partnership like the one enjoyed in the United States.
Private sector weather companies like AccuWeather take the NWS data that is available to everyone and apply our technology and skills to it to create products that are uniquely tailored to the needs of our business clients.  Businesses pay us for the value that we bring to their operations.  Private sector weather companies, create jobs and pay taxes on our profits. Through this arrangement, the U.S. taxpayer is not paying for “corporate welfare” – i.e., special forecasts and services made by the government for individual businesses.
But, we face a challenge in this period of likely tightening federal budgets.
The amazingly accurate forecasts of Irene’s path were made possible because the NWS launched special weather balloons at an unprecedented rate last week and flew hurricane hunter and data gathering aircraft around the storm. Since we now know that making this investment directly results in a more accurate forecast, I believe Congress should make the money available to do this routinely in major weather situations and, perhaps, acquire additional data-gathering aircraft. 
Can some things in the NWS be cut and resources reallocated? Yes, but on balance, we need to invest more in the NWS and its data gathering and distribution. We need to make smart investments in research that, for example, will allow us to much more accuarately and consistently forecast the strengthening and weakening of hurricanes, a vital topic in view of our overforecast of Irene’s intensity. At present, weather science only has a moderate understanding of how hurricanes strengthen and weaken.
By making targeted investments, we can fully leverage the rapid increase in forecast and warning accuracy to save lives and make the economy grow.
The National Weather Service is one of the (unfortunately few) jewels of the federal government. It is one of the rare areas where there really is a “multiplier” effect: Dollars invested result in far greater numbers of dollars being created through lives saved and economic productivity increased.

30 thoughts on “Should the National Weather Service Be Scaled Back?

  1. Thanks for giving props to the 4/day soundings… It still amazes me that they can be requested only on special events, even thought the cost is so marginal compared to potential forecast improvements.

  2. Rob,
    Thanks. I'd like to see the NOAA Gulfstream flying in an April 27th-type situation and before major winter storms.
    Mike

  3. You said it, Mike. Wonderful, reasoned blog post regarding the nonsensical commentary on abolishing the NWS from Fox News this weekend. People need to understand that the weather enterprise is highly dependent on all entities, whether governmental, academic, or capitalist. Meteorology is one of the most interlaced fields of study there is, and we need to protect that. Weather is global, not local.

  4. You liberals need to give it a rest. Fox news didn't advocate for the nws being abolished. It was an op-ed piece on a blog for crying out loud. When Obama is through with us, we'll be lucky to have anything left, much less the weather service….

  5. @Anonymous Your comment is clearly one with no weight behind it. All you can do is resort to name-calling and an empty defense of a news channel. Put some meat behind your arguments and maybe people will listen. You are taking an issue that has little to do with the president and only making assumptions. Stop hiding behind your hate and actually be objective.

  6. One issue is that the NWS does not see itself as a "data gathering and distribution" entity. Instead, they provide "decision support services" though products to its "customers". This conflict often puts it at direct odds with companies like, oh, Accu-weather. This is why Accu-weather has to saber rattle each time NWS comes out with some new service that encroaches on the private sector and why Ed Johnson's phone bill is so large each month. When NWS starts to whine about programs getting cut, they should express the cost not in terms of millions of dollars, but in terms of GS-14 employees in DC. 20% of NWS head count and 35% of salary is in Silver Spring?

    Anyway, I wish there would be a 'great reset' in government and cut everyone's salary 10%. This would bring salaries a bit closer to the private sector market.

  7. Let the NWS continue to collect and disseminate data. Keep the NWS in chage of issuing warnings for the protection of life and property. Then turn over the day to day forecasts to private companies. Many NWS meteorologists then go to work for these private companies. Government saves mega amounts of money and forecasts not only do not suffer but can actually be improved through competition.

  8. @Anonymous who said "cut everyone's salary 10%"

    …if anything the private mets are UNDERpaid and should be brought up to the government's level. For the amount of work some of us do in the private industry to save lives/money and limit risks (with the potential to save millions of dollars per event), to get paid 25-30k/yr as a starting salary after 4+ years of college in a hard science is insulting.

  9. Turning "day-to-day forecasting over the private weather companies" would make it nearly impossible for the NWS to issue warnings for ALL dangerous weather that would be a threat to life and property. How is a warning forecaster supposed to accurately issue a winter storm warning without first forecasting temperatures to determine if wintry precipitation will even occur?

    Another thing wrong with the scenario painted by "Anonymous"? How is it saving the government money when a government agency must pay a private company for a specialized point forecast of say…a fire that's occurring on say…Army property that is threatening homes (i.e. – is a threat to life and property)? That is a service that NWS offices routinely provide that come directly from the "day-to-day forecasting". It's not all about providing a 7-day forecast for the public, chief.

    Great write-up, Mike, and you are right on! The writers of the blog are clearly clueless, as evidenced by quite a few of the erroneous "facts" contained in the op-ed.

  10. I have worked in the private sector and the government as a meteorologist and know the details of both agencies and interests. The article posted in Fox News against the National Weather Service is an example of pure jealosy against smart and prepared meteorologists in both the private sector and the government. It is true that private sector meteorologists are underpaid and some greedy individuals in the private sector want to underpay the government meteorologists so that they can keep exploiting the private sector ones. I also would like to mention that the private sector has forced me in the past to change scientific results against the facts simply in favor of the company bottom line. By the way … I am talking about high ranking management position. It is irresponsible for Fox News to allow for an article of this kind, full of lies, to make it to the public. This says a lot about the kind of message that Fox News is sending to the public. The US has the most succesful partnership between the private sector and the government when it comes to weather. This is part of the success of the US and something that we cannot let a few nut greedy individuals in this country to destroy. I also want to say that a lot of the information put in this article is incorrect and I urge people to get organized to sue Fox News for carrying forward this article.

  11. For those who read these comments who are not trully informed of the reality of salaries …the salary of a GS-14 employee is equivalent or less than the salary of a highly trained meteorologist/scientist/programmer in the private sector. GS-14 positions are occupied by skilled workers who earn what they deserve through their education, training, and dedication. This is true also for highly paid employees in the private sector. This is a political attack against the people of this country that work very hard. There is a sense of jealosy here. What we need in this country is the right number of trained people with the right salaries not underpaid people who are the puppets of others. This is a political move to convince people that we need to save money in the government. Actually, you do not save money by getting rid of the skilled workers and the best science. The skilled workers create the science, the models, the greatest ideas, etc, etc. Going against this is going against the heart of the United States. These arguments in the Fox News article are trully designed to convince the people who do not know the facts. All I ask is that we as a country stop the stupidity and silly attacks and concentrate in building a stronger nation. Obviously the NWS as well as many other agaencies are essential for the success of this country.

  12. By the way I urge people to remove Fox News from their TV package … this way Fox News gets what they deserve !!! This is a free country and the power of the consumer cannot be understimated.

  13. The same attack happened after hurricane Gloria hit the US. These anti-government anarchists look for any opportunity to to attack the government. The reality is that these anarchists simply want to be able to have the freedom to do what they want (right or wrong).

  14. The laws of economics make total privatization impossible. The free-rider issue would make sharing privately funded data unworkable. Who would pay the billions of dollars needed to buy the weather infrastructure now owned by the NWS?

    Fox's article also makes the specious claim that the NWS was started for national security, but it is no longer needed for national security. On what planet are accurate weather data not needed for national security? The U.S. Air Force runs its Global Weather Center with data fully integrated with the NWS and other national weather services. Tell the Combat Weather teams who risk their lives to deploy with Special Forces and other Army units that weather data are not national security concerns. Roger

  15. Folks, this is a great discussion, but a caution: I do not allow POLITICAL comments on the blog and some of these are starting to get close ("anti-government anarchists").

    I do allow (and encourage) comments about the workings of government, good or bad.

  16. "Current federal policy (set by the FCC) will not allow private sector companies to run 10cm weather radars." Could you elaborate on why this is?

  17. I have no idea. I tried to find out a number of years ago by communicating with an FCC attorney, but could never get a satisfactory answer.

    My guesses (and I want to emphasize it is only a guess) is that radars with shorter wavelengths suffer from signal attenuation in rain, hail, and sleet. For reasons (military?) only they can fathom, the government doesn't want privately run radars to have as much capability as government-run radars.

    There is also a possible issue about available spectrum for radars. It may be the slot allocated for 10cm radars is very narrow and so the government doesn't want privately-owned radars crowding theirs out.

    Again, these are just guesses.

    Mike

  18. Isn't the UK currently discussing privatizing the Met Office, which is basically the same thing as the NWS?

  19. It is being discussed, but I believe there is a 10% chance it will occur. Right now, it is a profit center (i.e., the forecasts they make, for a fee, to private industry offset many of their other costs).

  20. So it's not really that odd if the UK is seriously considering it, and if it's already a commercial entity than what's the big deal about privatizing the NWS–minus the national security issue of course? Why couldn't the U.S. make the NWS a user-fee agency at least?

  21. @3:06pm. I do not believe it is being "seriously considered" in the UK (if you have contrary info, please share).

    UK, by itself, does not launch weather satellites, have the responsibility of hurricane forecasting for MANY nations (the UN gave that responsibility to the U.S. government) etc.. Please read the posting above in its entirety and I believe the reasons the U.S. government must be deeply involved in weather will be obvious.

  22. The statement said cut "government salary" by 10% to bring them closer to the private sector market. And by the way, if you only earned 25-30K starting salary as a private sector meteorologist after 4+ years of college, it sounds like you either went to work for the wrong company, or you have some sort of personal problem.

  23. According to the Ministry of Defense, the UK is serious about considering privatisation. http://www.theyworkforyou.com/wrans/?id=2011-01-19a.33976.h&s=%22met+office%22

    You said private entities cannot conduct foreign policy. I'm not sure that weather data sharing counts as foreign policy, but the UK clearly doesn't seem to think this is a big obstacle. In any case, that'd only be an argument for State Dept. diplomats advocating on behalf of the private firm as Canada did after the privatized their Air Traffic Control.

    That was your only point, so I still don't really see the problem with privatization.

  24. @5:49pm, since the deadline for the study has come and gone and there is no privatization, I imagine the idea is in the 10% range I've already posted.

    The Canada analogy breaks down because Canada only does ATC for Canada. The U.S. National Weather Service is the regional forecast center for tropical cyclones under agreement with the WMO.

    I don't think you are reading my posting carefully if you think it is my "only point."

  25. If the Repubs were smarter and more serious, they would question NWS' concept of operations and ask for science studies as to if forecasts and warnings could be issued from a centralized location and the local offices stepped back to non-shift normally week day local coordination effort that would go extra hours when events occur.

    This would reduce labor costs … a lot. But even if the science would should it to be feasible, it would become a political hot potato.

    Problem is, though, the longer NWS/NWSEO ignore this concept, the more of a target they will become at the expense of the enterprise.

  26. I learned a few things too. Apparently we don't need the NWS according to Fox News. Oh wait! My job at Flight Service gets all their wx info from the NWS and I relay that information to pilots. I can't tell you how many pilots I talk to per day that decide not to fly due to wx. Wx that came from the NWS. How about we get everyone from Fox News on a flight flying through a hurricane or SEV TS without wx that's provided by the NWS. 

  27. Mike,

    Great informative post! Everyone talks about the private weather market….I am trying to get a sense of the scale of this private market versus the NOAA budget of $5B. Is the private market 2x? 10x? 20x?? Not sure I have seen any public figures….Thanks!

  28. @7:54pm. The reason you have not seen figures is that most of the companies are private and don't release them.

    Unfortunately, I don't have any special insight as to what the number may be.