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Politics and weather

Oct 14, 2013

“Due to the Federal government shutdown, and most associated websites are unavailable. Specific NOAA websites necessary to protect lives and property are operational and will be maintained.”

This is the message that has greeted visitors to the NOAA website in early October. Thankfully, the “specific NOAA websites” cited in the message included almost all websites that provide weather forecast information and weather advisories and warnings, including the Ocean Prediction Center and the National Hurricane Center as well as local weather service offices around the nation, including those that produce near coastal marine forecasts. But it led me to think about what would happen if NOAA’s National Weather Service were to completely shut down its operations.


A screen shot of the National Weather Service website with the shutdown notice.


The answer is that there would be a nearly instant and almost universal degradation of weather forecast information, including the cessation of all weather watches and warnings. This would mean no warnings for severe thunderstorms and tornadoes, no warnings for floods (think of the recent situation in Colorado), no warnings for tropical storms or hurricanes, and the list goes on. For those at sea, there would be no information on expected winds and sea state, and no ability to determine if or when conditions would dramatically change for a vessel. Also, the ability for a vessel at sea to contact anyone to obtain this information would be severely reduced.

Now some folks might counter that there are ways to obtain weather information from non-government entities, like radio and television stations, and private consultants (such as myself). While this is true, these private entities depend heavily on data and information provided by government sources. The sophisticated computer models that have led to significant improvements in forecasting ability, both in terms of accuracy and range of forecasts, are run by the government with the data then made widely available. The network of surface weather observations, both on land and at sea, is largely managed by the government. Weather balloons which provide upper air observations and allow for critical upper air analyses are launched by the government. The satellites that allow for more comprehensive observations of the atmosphere from above than ever before are operated by the government. Weather radar installations that allow detection of precipitation and precise location of severe storms are operated by the government.

Take away all of this infrastructure, and most private entities would see their ability to provide meaningful weather information to their constituencies severely degraded, if not eliminated altogether. Some organizations have their own radar installations, and there are some privately administered observation networks (Weatherbug, for example), but these sources of information would not provide anywhere near enough information required to generate forecasts with the accuracy and range to which the public has become accustomed. In particular, for marine operations, without the government collection and subsequent distribution of ship observations, and without satellite coverage of the vast oceans, information regarding current conditions would be nearly nonexistent.

In addition, because the United States cooperates with other governments around the world, these other nations would also suffer a significant loss of information. This is particularly the case for small Caribbean nations that do not have the resources to support the infrastructure that would be required to provide their citizens with the forecasts and warnings to protect their interests. The cooperation with these nations is a two way street, as they provide weather observations to the U.S., which allow for more global coverage, critical for forecasting of hurricanes, among other things.

The bottom line here is that if the National Weather Service were to cease functioning tomorrow, we could expect a significant adverse economic impact almost immediately, and property losses and fatalities due to weather would spike upward. President George W. Bush once commented that the National Weather Service is one of the most efficient agencies in all of government, providing an invaluable service for a very modest cost to the people.

We must also consider some of the functions of NOAA that are not as obvious on a day-to-day basis. These are the research efforts that are ongoing as a partnership between the government and many prestigious colleges and universities. These activities, which sometimes may appear to be unrelated to the mission of providing warnings and forecasts, are, in fact, critically important. The increase in reliability of forecasts, and the ability to provide greater warning time for weather events threatening life and property are a direct result of research that has extended over decades. For example, extensive study was done many years ago about the size of raindrops. An initial reaction to this might question its usefulness, but in fact, that research ended up being a critical component in the understanding of the development of thunderstorms and tornadoes, which, in turn, has led to a significant improvement in the ability to provide warnings for these systems. Ongoing research will hopefully lead to other improvements in forecast skill, such as the ability to identify situations when hurricanes will rapidly intensify, which remains a difficult task at present.

The provision of weather information and forecasts in the U.S. is currently a public-private partnership that works very well. The American people have decided, through their representatives to Congress, that accurate and timely weather forecast information is important, and this is the reason that the National Weather Service exists. Those who wish, or need to have even more detailed weather information can obtain it from other entities that use the data made available by the National Weather Service, but can spend more focused time and effort on a specific forecast. There is no doubt in my mind that weather forecasts, public and private, have saved many lives over the years, both on land and at sea. If the American people wish this to continue, they must make sure their representatives to Congress are aware of this desire.

Ken McKinley earned a bachelor's degree in atmospheric science from Cornell University in 1980, and attended graduate school in meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After working as a meteorologist for nearly 10 years he founded his own meteorological consulting firm, Locus Weather, in Camden, Maine.

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