Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.
By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 12:58 PM GMT on April 26, 2005
It may soon be illegal for the National Weather Service (NWS) to issue non-severe weather forecasts under the provisions of the National Weather Service Duties Act of 2005, Senate Bill S.786, introduced April 14 by Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa. The bill's key provision (Section 2b) states that the National Weather Service cannot provide "a product or service...that is or could be provided by the private sector", with the exception of severe weather forecasts and warnings needed to protect life and property. Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez is given sole authority on how to interpret what NWS products and services should be restricted. In his comments upon introduction of the bill, Senator Santorum said the bill would boost the private weather industry by reducing unfair competition from the NWS and generate cost savings to the government, remarking, "The beauty of a highly competent private sector is that services that are not inherently involved in public safety and security can be carried out with little or no expenditure of taxpayer dollars."
Why The Weather Underground opposes the National Weather Service Duties Act of 2005
It is unclear from the bill's language whether the NWS would be allowed to continue making its routine public and marine forecasts. This decision would be made by the Secretary of Commerce. I believe the expertise of the NWS forecasters is unmatched anywhere in the world, and throwing away their forecasts would be a shameful waste. Although the private weather industry can and does provide routine public and marine forecasts, the quality of these forecasts is sometimes poor and would likely worsen if the NWS ceased issuing forecasts. When I participated in forecasting contests both as a student and an instructor, I discovered that while it was difficult--but not impossible--to beat the NWS forecast, it was nearly impossible to beat the "consensus" forecast--that is, the average of everyone's forecast. Private weather industry forecasters do their own forecasting, but will usually check their forecast against what the NWS says before sending it out. If the NWS forecast differs considerably, there will frequently be an adjustment made towards the NWS forecast, resulting in a better "consensus" forecast. So, with the proposed legislation, not only would we lose the best forecasts available, but the forecasts from the private weather companies would also worsen. Many sectors of our economy depend upon good forecasts, and passage of the bill might result in a loss of millions of dollars to the economy. Elimination of routine NWS forecasts would result in little cost savings to the government. The 24-hour staffing at NWS offices required to make severe weather forecasts would not change significantly, and these forecasters would need to be working all the time making forecasts in order to fulfill their duty to make severe weather forecasts. If the NWS has to keep their forecasting staff in place, why not continue to let them make their excellent forecasts? Ed Johnson, the weather service's director of strategic planning and policy remarked, "If someone claims that our core mission is just warning the public of hazardous conditions, that's really impossible unless we forecast the weather all the time. You don't just plug in your clock when you want to know what time it is."
Not all private industry would benefit
The Weather Underground, Inc. relies heavily on NWS forecasts and products that would likely be eliminated. Without these products, our company would likely be forced to significantly downsize. Other private weather companies are in the same situation, and smaller TV and radio stations that rely on free NWS forecasts would also suffer. And K-12 schools that rely on the ad-free weather.gov web site would be forced to eliminate some weather education offerings.The bill primarily benefits those private weather companies with large staffs of forecasters that can make forecasts for the entire country, such as AccuWeather and the Weather Channel. Legislation like this has been pushed for many years by the Commercial Weather Services Association, led by AccuWeather, a company based in Pennsylvania. CWSA and AccuWeather managed to get almost identical bill introduced in the House in 1999.
Too much power is given to the Secretary of Commerce
The decisions on which NWS services and products unfairly compete with private industry are given to one person, the Secretary of Commerce. Leaving one politically-appointed person in charge of this decision-making is unwise. A more fair solution would be to form a committee to make the decisions.
How to oppose The National Weather Service Duties Act of 2005
The National Weather Service Duties Act of 2005 is currently before the Senate Commerce Committee, and will have to make it out of there before the full Senate votes on it. The time to kill this bill is now! If you're interested, you can sign a petition opposing the National Weather Service Duties Act of 2005, or write your Senator if he or she is on the Senate Commerce Committee: http://commerce.senate.gov/about/membership.html
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