FYI: Science Policy News

House Panel Examines Balance between Public and Private Sectors in Weather Forecasting

JUL 13, 2016
A House Science subcommittee hearing brought together leaders of the weather community to explore the preferred balance between the three sectors - government, academic, and private – that make up the U.S. weather enterprise.
Former Director of FYI
Weather forecasting hearing panel

The hearing featured leaders of the weather community as witnesses, including (from left to right) Barry Myers, Jim Block, Neil Jacobs, Tony Busalacchi, and Sandy MacDonald. (Image credit – House Science Committee)

At a June hearing of the House Science Committee’s Environment Subcommittee chaired by Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), committee members and a panel of witnesses drawn from the weather community examined the balance between the federal government, academic, and private sectors in providing for the nation’s weather observations and forecasting capabilities. These three sectors are the three main components of the U.S. weather enterprise. While differences emerged at the hearing between members and witnesses on the ideal balance between sectors, all reaffirmed the value of a cooperative, tripartite structure.

Of the five witnesses invited to testify, four hailed from the weather industry and one from the academic weather community. Notably absent was a witness from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, prompting full committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) to criticize the witness balance. The panel included:

  • Barry Myers, CEO of AccuWeather;
  • Jim Block, Chief Meteorological Officer at Schneider Electric;
  • Neil Jacobs, Chief Atmospheric Scientist at Panasonic Avionics Corporation;
  • Tony Busalacchi, then-director of the University of Maryland’s Earth System Interdisciplinary Center and now President of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research; and
  • Sandy MacDonald, Director for Numerical Weather Prediction at Spire Global.

All five witnesses have served in major committee or leadership roles within the American Meteorological Society , an AIP Member Society.

Members and witnesses praise U.S. weather enterprise, call for more cooperation

Over the course of the hearing, Bridenstine and subcommittee Ranking Member Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) sought to clarify the roles of the weather enterprise’s three sectors. Many of the questions they and fellow committee members asked of the witnesses probed the boundaries between the sectors.

Bridenstine used the hearing as a platform to again push for a more active role for the private sector, particularly in generating weather data, and he cautioned NOAA about overreaching:

To me, there is a clear delineation here. NOAA should focus on providing the foundational datasets that others utilize to produce life-saving forecasts rather than duplicating efforts and technologies that are employed or could be employed by the private sector. As an example, the main tenant of H.R. 1561, the ‘Lucas-Bridenstine Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act’” is its recognition of the role commercial weather data can play as a piece of the solutions available to NOAA.

Bonamici warned against those who would “advocate for disaggregating the current structure” of the U.S. weather enterprise and said that she stands for a united enterprise that is “stronger together.” She called for a focus on working across sectors:

The three sectors that make up the weather enterprise…work collectively to meet the needs of the public, inspire growth and innovation, and protect life and property. To maintain the progress we have made over the last decade, we must explore opportunities to leverage expertise across these sectors.

Bonamici reminded those in the hearing room that the seminal 2003 National Academies report “Fair Weather: Effective Partnerships in Weather and Climate Services ” outlined the core missions and responsibilities of each sector.

Myers’ opening statement pointed out that the U.S. weather industry, including Accuweather, has always depended on government – and its “24/7, 365-day” commitment to the acquisition and distribution of data, funding of research and development, running of weather models, and issuing of severe weather warnings - for success. Said Myers,

The U.S. has the best weather information available to its citizens and its business and industrial sectors of any nation. This result did not occur by the American weather industry acting alone. It was and continues to be the interactive cooperative approach of the weather industry, the academic research community, and NOAA and its National Weather Service that has led to this result.

He added that the joint and collaborative efforts of the weather enterprise can be credited with having saved as many as 1 to 2 million lives since the late 1950s.

Busalacchi echoed Myers, saying the U.S. has the “world’s most comprehensive and successful array of weather services in support of the public and private good.” He cautioned, however, that he sees the potential for the “fragmentation of our enterprise” if the balance between the sectors in the enterprise is off kilter. He asserted that if private companies become too dominant within the enterprise, they might overlook the common goal of protecting lives, property, and supporting the military. He called for development of a national strategy so the enterprise “doesn’t lose sight of the big picture.

As his key recommendation, Busalacchi called for the National Academies to launch a new decadal survey for the weather enterprise that would serve as “an active and ongoing strategic planning process.”

Private weather sector growing and becoming more sophisticated

The rise of the private weather sector, in both influence and capability, was an ongoing theme of the hour-long hearing. Myers pointed out how quickly the private sector has grown in recent decades, and how it now dominates the business of communicating weather forecasts:

At the end of World War II, about 98 percent of the information received by the public came from the government directly. Now it’s estimated that that’s reversed, and about 98 percent comes from the weather industry, and this includes special warning for tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, etc.

MacDonald, who recently left his scientific post as the head of NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory to take a leadership role at Spire, spoke to the promise of the burgeoning commercial weather data industry. Spire, he confirmed, has already launched four weather-observing micro-satellites, which he said was just the beginning. (Bridenstine has led Congress in pushing NOAA and the Department of Defense to open the door to buying weather data from companies like Spire, through Commercial Weather Data Pilot projects.)

Panasonic represents perhaps the most sophisticated private sector weather operation that was at the witness table. The company’s weather division is now engaged in the full gamut of weather prediction – from aircraft-based weather observations, to data assimilation into the company’s own numerical weather models, to decision support for clients. When Bridenstine asked Jacobs how Panasonic’s global weather forecasting model stacks up against NOAA’s Global Forecasting System model or the European’s global weather model, he replied that by some verification standards it is already outperforming NOAA’s.

However, Panasonic is still not close to being able to go at it alone. When asked, Jacobs acknowledged to the committee members that NOAA is a key facilitator of their business, “particularly on the data acquisition side.” Jacobs also added that Panasonic also has had a good experience in working with NOAA in contracting for aircraft data.

When Johnson and Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) questioned Busalacchi, he took the opportunity to return NOAA’s foundational role in the weather enterprise:

The role of the government…is the protection of life, property, support of economic competitiveness, and homeland national security. And to do that, the government has to be on the cutting edge and have these foundational datasets where we are the best in the world and then also have these free and open models so that my colleagues here can build upon it. … If that core support is gone, we may have some near-term gains but in the mid to long-term the enterprise may well collapse on itself because that core of the data and these foundational models just won’t be there for the private sector to flourish.

By the end of the hearing, Bridenstine was ready to acknowledge that, the importance of pursuing commercial weather data notwithstanding, NOAA must continue to serve as the foundation of the weather enterprise:

There is a balancing act here between the public good and the private sector. And I think all of us on both sides of the aisle agree that we absolutely must have a government backbone because it is for the lives and safety of our citizens but also for the property of Americans.

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