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Winter/Spring 2003 Vol. 3 No. 1

Table of Contents

©PhotoDisc Fair Weather

Public vs. Private Forecasting

The National Weather Service has issued a severe thunderstorm warning for the following locations . . ."
People are accustomed to hearing this familiar refrain when dangerous weather approaches. They know the government and news media are keeping a watchful eye open for them. What they may not realize, however, is that there are some 400 private companies in the business of weather forecasting, a $500 million-a-year enterprise in the United States.

For the most part, these companies issue forecasts tailored to specific industries, such as trucking or shipping, although some supply general weather forecasts as well, often delivered to the public via a radio or TV station that pays for the service. Some companies deliver weather information directly to the public; WeatherBug, for instance, is a popular Internet product that sends real-time forecasts, including National Weather Service warnings, straight to computer users.

But because NWS issues general forecasts in addition to weather advisories and warnings, a few of the private companies think the government agency is unfairly competing with them. In 1991, NWS tried to alleviate these concerns by adopting a "public-private partnership" policy that said the agency would not provide services that the private sector could. Although NWS intended the policy to mean that it would not issue forecasts tailored to a specific industry, it did not believe general forecasts had to be stopped.

A new report from the National Research Council calls the 1991 policy ambiguous and says NWS indeed should continue to issue general forecasts. For NWS to provide timely warnings, it must collect substantial amounts of data and run several atmospheric models to interpret the data, so the large and expensive infrastructure needed for general forecasting is already in place and paid for by taxpayers, the report notes.

Interpretation of the 1991 policy was further affected by federal "e-government" initiatives and rules requiring full and open access to all publicly funded data. NWS should continue to provide unrestricted access to its data, not only because federal regulations require it, but also so meteorologists and researchers from the academic and private sectors can use the data in their work, the report says.

The current policy should be replaced with one that allows decisions to be made on an ongoing basis about whether a forecast should be made by NWS or the private sector, the report says, adding that meteorologists from business and academia should be involved in the decision-making. NWS needs to take steps to ensure that its many regional offices are given guidelines for discontinuing certain forecasts. A local office, for example, should not be providing forecasts designed specifically for a ski resort.   -- Bill Kearney

Fair Weather: Effective Partnerships in Weather and Climate Services. Committee on Partnerships in Weather and Climate Services, Committee on Geophysical and Environmental Data, Board on Earth Sciences and Resources, Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate, Division on Earth and Life Studies; and Computer Science and Telecommunications Board, Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences (2003, approx. 128 pp.; ISBN 0-309-08746-5; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $25.00 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).

The committee was chaired by John Armstrong, retired vice president of research, IBM Corp., now living in Amherst, Mass. The study was funded by the National Weather Service.

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Copyright 2003 by the National Academy of Sciences