Imagine a future in which tornado warnings are not issued by a single entity, the National Weather Service, but rather by multiple private companies. These companies all have different methods and rationale for warnings, so they aren’t always being issued for the same storms and the same locations.
In this future, warnings as we currently know them have disappeared. As a storm approaches your neighborhood, you might think you’re under a tornado warning, but your neighbors are not — you get your weather from different sources that happen to disagree on the severity of this storm. There’s a lot of confusion at an extremely dangerous moment.
This future is what members of Congress are considering right now.
In May, Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) introduced a new piece of legislation on space. Not space weather — space. But there’s something buried in the bill that is quite frankly alarming from a public safety perspective, and has nothing to do with space.
Bridenstine’s proposal would prohibit the National Weather Service from creating any new services if it is something that the private weather industry already does or could potentially do. That’s a broad statement in itself, but it also would require the Weather Service to “incorporate commercial solutions” into programs that already exist, meaning they would need to contract out some of the services that they already provide to private companies.
If this sounds like deja vu, you’re not mistaken. Ten years ago, then-Sen. Rick Santorum proposed a bill to restrict the National Weather Service from competing against private industry. “The bill went nowhere but brought Santorum a nationwide pasting from bloggers, weather enthusiasts, airline pilots and other critics,” Politico wrote as Santorum’s presidential campaign began to falter in 2012. “Some of them noted that executives from AccuWeather — a company based in State College, Pa., in Santorum’s home state — had donated thousands of dollars to his campaigns over the years.”
In a hearing on the Hill on Wednesday morning, AccuWeather chief executive Barry Myers sat with four other representatives of the private weather industry to brief members of Congress on the state of forecasting and technology in the commercial sector.
In his opening statement, Bridenstine, who chairs the House subcommittee on environment, pulled no punches on the issue. “To me, there is a clear delineation here,” he said. “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.”
“Chairman Bridenstine’s opening statement was shocking,” said Richard Hirn, counsel for the National Weather Service Employees Organization, a labor union, “but this is still the same old formula.”
To be fair, NOAA and the National Weather Service have been slow to evolve, adapt and innovate. The speed and agility of the private sector outpaces many arms of the federal government — not just weather. The private sector will always be better at transitioning cutting-edge research into practice and doing it “with velocity.” It’s why the National Weather Service is in this position to begin with.
There is certainly value in the National Weather Service not only working closely with the private sector, but also purchasing the services and data from commercial entities that would enhance its mission. Many private companies are currently launching small satellites which could significantly improve severe weather and hurricane forecasts. Panasonic Weather Services recently announced that their forecast model — the backbone of which is NOAA’s GFS model — currently rivals the skill of the European forecast model, in part because of proprietary data that could be of value to NOAA.
So yes, the private sector has made advances, but that is not a reason to hand over the keys. It’s a reason to establish better partnerships and knowledge-sharing. It serves as motivation to craft the private, academia and government sectors into the enterprise that can advance the science and do the most good for the safety of the American people.
That is what is at the core of this issue — public safety.
Laura Furgione, the deputy director of the National Weather Service, says there’s a lot at risk. “We’ve seen from social science research that individuals will want a secondary confirmation,” Furgione said. In other words, people don’t just simply heed a tornado warning. They double check with other outlets first. “If they’re getting something different [from these other outlets], they’re not going to know what action to take.”
Furthermore, if the point is to reduce the tax burden on the American public, this is the wrong way to go about it. The National Weather Service’s mission is to protect lives and property. Period. Private sector weather companies might have similar goals, but they exist to be profitable.
This proposal doesn’t suggest the Weather Service shouldn’t exist — just that it should hand over everything but the creation and management of key data to the private sector. So in this new, super-privatized world, taxpayers would continue to fund the National Weather Service, but would then have to pay private companies for forecasts and warnings.
In other words, the public would be paying twice.
“This isn’t free enterprise,” Hirn told The Post. “This is government-subsidized crony capitalism.”
Not all in attendance on Wednesday morning had bought into the proposal. Rep. Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.), ranking member of the House science committee, emphasized that “the protection of our citizens and national security are inherently government functions.”
“Are these companies then assuming the burden of responsibility that the federal government currently bears in meeting its core mission?” Johnson continued. “Will private companies be held liable for negligent errors or poor performance? Will Congress have oversight over those companies?”
Furgione echoed Johnson’s statements. “We have to be here,” Furgione said. “The forecast and warnings and data are a public good, and so we have to make sure that we are providing services equitably across the U.S.”
This is all to say that public safety information must be equitably distributed. You shouldn’t need to fear that you’re not getting the best information available based on the weather company you’ve chosen to follow. There should be no question about what action to take during a life-threatening weather situation.
The weather enterprise needs to make changes. We need to evolve, and we need to do it with speed and agility. In many ways, the entire enterprise — from government forecasters to graduate research assistants in severe storm labs — need to be as agile and innovative as their counterparts in the private sector.
But this proposal isn’t the solution to our problems.