President Trump, however, made this a political controversy when he personally interfered in the NWS’s ability to inform the public regarding the forecast path of Dorian. The resulting feud — including the “Sharpiegate” scandal — was indeed a distraction from more pressing matters of concern, specifically how to respond to the crisis unfolding on the Bahamas.
But it also raised a troubling question: What if weather prediction becomes political? Forget climate change for a moment; what if we could not agree about the daily weather?
The issue at stake goes beyond the morale of a federal agency, bureaucratic infighting or presidential buffoonery. A society must be able to collectively trust scientific information and government expertise. To understand why trust in government weather science is so important, we need to understand the history of the struggle for federal authority in weather forecasting and how Americans came to put their faith in their government weather service. While we may take weather forecasts for granted today, Americans 150 years ago had to learn that government forecasts and storm warnings were a trustworthy public good that could help everybody plan for the future and protect their lives and livelihoods.
Until the mid-19th century, weather predictions were rooted in local knowledge, almanacs and weather folklore. But meteorologist James Espy called for a more scientific approach, writing in his 1841 book “The Philosophy of Storms” that he wished for “the death of superstition on this subject.” Understanding weather patterns, after all, could mean the difference between starvation and survival if, for example, one had forewarning to shelter family and livestock in advance of a blizzard.
Espy was a man ahead of his time, however. It would take the advent of weather telegraph networks after the Civil War and a new federal commitment to protecting the public from weather-related risks to make Espy’s vision a reality.
In 1870, Congress authorized the first federal storm warning system along Great Lakes and Atlantic Coast shipping routes, before extending short-term forecasting to other areas. Its supporters said “the signaling of storms … will, it is believed, mark a new era in our lake and coast navigation, and be the means of annually saving many lives and millions of dollars.” Newspapers in the 1870s agreed, lauding the government weather service as “by long odds the most popular national institution” and “such a necessity of American life” that stopping the service “would be a National calamity.”
Located initially within the U.S. Army Signal Service, the weather service became a civilian agency when the Weather Bureau was created within the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1890. Short-term government weather reports and forecasts were fairly accurate because they used the telegraph to send observations of temperature, precipitation and barometric pressure from west to east faster than the storms could travel. The warnings greatly reduced the losses to the shipping industry, which had become a disastrously dangerous business.
Newspapers and periodicals reported the success of the new storm warning service in terms of lives and dollars saved. But it was much harder for the federal government to produce long-range forecasts. In this realm, government meteorologists had to contend with “weather prophets” like Henry Vennor for authority. Vennor rose to fame in the late 1870s for successful winter storm predictions using idiosyncratic methods, and he used this credibility to publish widely read almanacs and newspaper weather predictions. By tapping local knowledge and accessing popular media, charismatic weather prophets like Vennor made it difficult for government officials to demarcate their own scientific approach from what Weather Bureau Chief Willis Moore derided in 1904 as “pseudoscience.”
To win the “war on the weather prophets” and establish federal authority in weather forecasting, government officials had to establish a boundary between superstitious, traditional “prophecy” and modern, scientific “forecasting.” But that was a difficult task. Government weather officials had to teach the public to trust reliable short-term government forecasting and renounce the appealing but more speculative long-range weather prophecy. Civil servant forecasters encouraged the public to not be fooled by “Fake Weather Forecasts” and urged the media to help advance their scientific work by “discouraging and discountenancing the publication of weather predictions founded upon such baseless theories.”
So tenuous was the authority of the Weather Bureau that even top government officials rejected the practice of forecasting with high uncertainty. In 1893, the secretary of Agriculture warned against issuing long-range forecasts that he feared would “degenerate, so far as precision and certainty is concerned, into the style of the ancient almanacs. … The real object of the Weather Bureau work is to state with more certainty what the weather will be tomorrow, or the next day.”
But soon outreach to media combined with new forecasting methods, and meteorologists secured their roles as the official spokespeople for future weather. Although the bureau’s authority over prediction remained open to criticism, by the time Willis Milham published his 1912 textbook “Meteorology,” the age of “speculation,” he optimistically argued, was finally ending.
Over the next decades, government weather forecasting advanced rapidly, thanks to new scientific theories about fronts and atmospheric waves, increased research funding during World War II, technical innovations in numerical weather prediction and computer-based modeling and the introduction of the probability of precipitation forecasts (e.g., 30 percent chance of rain) that we rely on today. After World War II, meteorology was a firmly established profession in both the government and private sectors.
The postwar boom in private consulting meteorology created a new challenge to federal authority: not from “weather prophets” but from commercial forecasting firms like AccuWeather (established in 1962), which repackaged freely available government weather data and sold it for a profit. Tensions over the public-private competition in weather forecasting culminated in the 1980s, when the Reagan administration tried to privatize the NWS.
While Reagan’s push failed, the politics of this competition remain potent. Trump nominated former AccuWeather CEO Barry Lee Myers to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (of which the NWS is a part). Myers cleared committee on a party-line vote, but he has not yet been confirmed. Although the spectacle of Sharpiegate has passed, the future of credible, public weather forecasts still hangs in the balance.
Since the late 19th century, meteorologists who provide public weather services have had to remind both the public and the federal government of their value, establishing, as the 1953 report of the title put it, that “Weather Is the Nation’s Business.” Their credibility has depended on both the scientific process by which they predict the weather and the ability to convey this information to the public without a political agenda.
As the effects of climate change continue to intensify and science frequently finds itself in political crossfire, today we must recognize the value of government weather science. If even weather becomes politicized, it will undermine the NWS’s work and mission. We must continue to build trust and capacity — in government, and in local communities — to support and to act on information that protects lives, livelihoods and property.