Guest op-ed

In the aftermath of Hurricane Isaac and its toll on New Orleans and the northern Gulf Coast, one thing is clear: weather has got to be on the national agenda.

For those of us who track U.S. weather capabilities, we know two things: our national monitoring and forecasting capabilities are trending downward and weather is directly linked to a key topic of the presidential campaigns—the economy.

The University Corporation of Atmospheric Research concluded last year that the average annual impact of routine weather on the U.S. economy is estimated at nearly one-half trillion dollars. Couple that with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s recent announcement that July 2012 was the hottest month ever recorded for the nation, and one can quickly understand why more and more businesses are managing risk around weather-related disruptions. This trend should be of key interest to both campaigns given its potential economic impact.

Running a successful business by any means is never easy, but many U.S. businesses are dealing with environmental events like never before and everything from operations to supply chains to the bottom line is being impacted.

Running a successful and profitable agriculture business is nearly impossible when more than 60% percent of the country is experiencing a severe drought. According to the National Crop Insurance Services, this year’s crop insurance losses are estimated to top $20 billion. As a result, food prices are rising globally.

Related link: Lack of Warning on Drought Reflects Forecasting Flaws (Climate Central)

Transportation companies—many of which only survive on tight schedules—are finding it hard to escape the buckling roads, rails, and runways caused by this summer’s heat and storms.

To reduce ever-rising property losses, insurance companies such as Travelers now offer wind credits to customers in Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas for fortified homes that meet severe weather standards.

An investment in weather satellites and other Earth observing capabilities should be viewed as an investment in U.S. business. This investment enables an emerging business sector to develop and market valuable environmental information products and services. It also enables short- and long-term forecasting that gives U.S. business a strategic advantage. After all, U.S. economic strength today is based on being the best information economy in the world.

Today’s weather enterprise is an astonishingly successful combination of government and commercial capabilities. The National Weather Service provides the foundation for satellite and ground observations, computer forecast models, and basic services. Commercial companies expand on this to produce a wide range of consumer and business services, ranging from daily weather on your mobile phone to precision wind energy forecasts saving utility ratepayers millions of dollars. This model should be actively facilitated in areas beyond weather.

Faster and broader development of new products and services would support the emerging alternative energy sector.

Advanced inter-annual and inter-seasonal forecasts would provide a more stable long-term outlook for agriculture, not to mention water management.

Improved assessment of extreme events and their long-term context would benefit all 50 states as they consider issues like infrastructure investment.

Finer-scaled observations and forecasts would enable improved risk management for U.S. coastal regions, currently insured for $9 trillion, according to Franklin W. Nutter, president of the Reinsurance Association of America.

Increased ocean observations would benefit marine transportation, ocean energy, tourism, and fishing industries, to name a few.

With examples such as these, it is no wonder that user demand for this information is growing globally yet governments are not equipped to fulfill all of the needs of this diverse user base.

Clearly, a business opportunity exists and, as the most technologically advanced nation in the world, the U.S. is poised to take advantage of it. “There are tremendous business opportunities today for innovative generation and use of weather information”, says William Gail, CTO of Boulder-based startup Global Weather Corporation, one of the companies adding jobs in today’s economy.

Coupled with the priority of sound science must be a commitment to expand and modernize our nation’s Earth observing infrastructure, strengthen the supply chain and recognize the private sector’s contribution to it, and secure global leadership in the environmental information marketplace.

The next Administration should:

* Implement policies that provide the private sector better access to the vast amounts of government Earth observation data that are currently inaccessible;

* Establish an E-Q-Tel organization based on the successful In-Q-Tel model that would help to accelerate Earth-related technologies that advance environmental intelligence; and

* Task the Secretary of Commerce to work with industry and government leaders to develop a national strategy for this business area.

Nothing is better for the nation’s economic crisis than improving our growth engines. In the area of environmental information, a relatively small, strategic investment would go a long way to leverage the existing science investment, benefit U.S. business, spur economic growth, and create a more resilient nation.

Nancy Colleton is president of the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES). IGES describes itself as “a trusted leader in Earth and space science education, communication and outreach, and in fostering national and international cooperation in global Earth observations.”