How do you keep up with the weather? If you’re like many people, you may have an app on your smartphone, like the one from the Weather Channel or AccuWeather, or one of the jazzier ones like Dark Sky or Weather Underground. Or perhaps you depend on local TV forecasters or the daily newspaper.
But where do these apps and forecasters get their information? How do local forecasters know, for instance, that a storm is brewing in the Atlantic that might bring high winds and rain to the East Coast? Or a low-pressure system is moving across the Great Plains that might dump a foot of snow on Chicago and Detroit?
They know it because the National Weather Service, a unit of the federal Department of Commerce, supplies them this information—and a wealth of other data about rain, wind, temperature readings, long- and short-range forecasts, and storms in the making. It provides this information around the clock, every day of the week, every week of the year, year after year. Oh, and it provides the information free of charge.
To do this, the National Weather Service has created a vast infrastructure for monitoring weather conditions, collecting data, and analyzing it. It includes 150 Doppler radar installations, satellites orbiting the Earth, buoys off the coasts monitoring and recording ocean conditions, and sensors on seagoing vessels and commercial airplanes. The Weather Service has agreements with counterparts around the world to share data, so forecasters can track storms long before they reach the U.S.
There’s more: The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the agency that contains the National Weather Service, has two turboprop airplanes that can fly into the middle of hurricanes to measure wind speed, velocity of movement, and direction, as well as a jet that tracks storms from higher altitudes. Finally, the National Weather Service maintains an army of volunteers trained in storm spotting (between 350,000 and 400,000 people) who keep watch and report their sightings. If a TV weather forecaster says a tornado has been seen in your area, it’s almost certainly because a storm spotter has alerted the Weather Service.
What does this ever-vigilant infrastructure cost the taxpayers? Right at $1 billion a year. Is that a good value? Considering natural disasters in the U.S. (hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, droughts, hail storms, and blizzards) routinely bring between $100 billion and $300 billion in damages a year, it seems so. (Not to mention injuries and deaths. One storm, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, caused more than 1,800 deaths and untold injuries. Had the National Weather Service not issued warnings causing 1.5 million people to flee the storm’s path, the death toll would have been much, much higher.)
But why does the government monitor the weather and alert us about storms and not private companies? How did it get into this business? And what specifically does it do to help us remain safe and maybe even prosper?
The “why” question is pretty simple. Because private companies could not do it. They couldn’t afford the radar and satellites, the sensors on airplanes, or the hurricane aircraft. Other nations’ weather services would not cooperate with a group of U.S. companies. And private companies could not field an army of volunteers to keep an eye out for storms and report their sightings. Only governments can marshal these resources.
That said, private companies are involved in what you might call the “last mile” of weather forecasting—delivering weather information to consumers like you through apps or much more detailed reports to shipping companies, farmers, owners of private airplanes, insurance companies trying to get ahead of storm damages, and retailers of all kinds.
The National Weather Service calls this the “Weather Enterprise” and, correctly, views it as the market-oriented tip of the iceberg, with government providing the vast majority of research, data, and analysis you can’t see. And, to repeat, providing it without cost to consumers or these companies.
So how and why did the federal government get into the weather forecasting business? By an act of Congress, when it established in 1871 what was then called the Weather Bureau. At first, the bureau was run by the U.S. Army Signal Service and was little more than a group of telegraph operators who alerted those in the east that a storm was headed their way. (Weather systems usually move from west to east.) Who would be interested in such information? Shipping companies, particularly those with freighters on the Great Lakes and along the Eastern Seaboard.
But weather information soon caught on with, among others, farmers, and by 1887 the Weather Bureau was moved to the Agriculture Department. By the 20th century yet another group had grown very interested in the weather. That was the aviation industry, and after lobbying from commercial airlines, the bureau was moved again, this time to the Department of Commerce.
As we noted in an earlier posting on the Census, governments are good at doing the same things over and over, making slow, steady improvements over time. That’s true of counting people and calculating demographic changes, and it’s true of understanding weather conditions and warning people of approaching storms. Except that, when it comes to weather forecasts, the changes have come in leaps thanks to computers, the proliferation of weather data, and advances in meteorology.
In fact, meteorologists can point to a single incident to show the difference between forecasting now and in the past: the March 1993 “Storm of the Century” that ravaged the East Coast. As author Michael Lewis explained in his book “The Fifth Risk,” “This (storm) marked the first time National Weather Service meteorologists were able to predict accurately a system’s severity five days in advance.”
But it’s not just in storm warnings that things have improved. As Lewis goes on to explain, forecasters armed with government data and assisted by computer modeling make five-day predictions today that are as accurate as next-day forecasts were in 2004.
How does this ever-improving accuracy help us? Some industries depend greatly on accurate weather forecasts: shipping companies in the 19th century; aviation today. But, really, many parts of a complex economy depend on knowing whether people or goods can move tomorrow. Take local government. Every inch of snow, Lewis notes, costs New York City $1.8 million in snow-removal costs. So having accurate five-day forecasts helps the city position work crews; long-term forecasts help it estimate costs for next year.
And ignoring changing conditions can be costly. In January 2021, Texas’ electric grid failed, costing tens of millions of dollars in property damage, lost productivity, and widespread human misery because its operators failed to prepare for a harsh winter storm. Farmers know when to plant and harvest in part because they know when storms are headed their way and when frost will be in the ground.
As climate change makes weather cycles more extreme, this kind of information will be more important than ever. And when it happens, we can be assured that the National Weather Service will be on watch, providing information, forecasts, and warnings around the clock, every day of the week, every week of the year, year after year . . . at no cost to residents, local governments, or companies.
Give the credit to: federal government
Photo by Niccolo Ubalducci licensed under Creative Commons.