September 9, 2014

Why I’m Against Privatizing the National Weather Service

Filed under: Politics,Science — PolitiCalypso @ 5:18 pm

Note:  This was an essay for a seminar.  I thought it turned out pretty well, though, so I’m putting it online too.


The issue of the proper role of government is an extremely controversial—and often emotional—topic in the United States today.  Lines are drawn and sides are staked out, with people on both sides often taking a hard-line principled stance, looking only at resources supporting their own position, and applying their principled belief no matter what the circumstance.  Over the past thirty years, this overarching debate has come to include a governmental agency whose function had not been questioned previously:  the National Weather Service.  Since 1983, the idea of cutting taxpayer funding for the National Weather Service and related agencies, and turning over their operations to private companies, has periodically surfaced.  The proposal has taken two primary forms:  the suggestion of cutting funding for forecasting operations with the expectation that private firms would take over the task, and the suggestion of selling weather satellites or other sources of weather data to the highest bidder and buying back the data that the sources generated.

History of the National Weather Service

The National Weather Service (NWS) originated after the American Civil War with the advent of a national telegraph system.  For the first time, weather observations could be transmitted immediately.  The science of meteorology had also advanced to the point that scientists studying the atmosphere knew that they would need observations from a broad geographical area in order to apply physical principles and produce a weather forecast, and the new technology had finally made this possible.  In 1870, President Grant signed a bill of Congress authorizing the creation of a government agency to collect these observations from official stations and issue notice to downstream areas about incoming storms.  The agency was initially part of the Department of War (now named the Department of Defense), but late in 1890, it was moved to the Department of Agriculture, a civilian agency, and renamed the Weather Bureau.

Throughout the twentieth century, the Weather Bureau steadily improved its forecasting capabilities with the addition of new technologies for gathering data and a continuous refinement of its numerical weather prediction tools.  The invention of the computer in the 1940s provided an obvious opportunity, and in 1950, the first computer was, in fact, used to produce the first computer-generated weather forecast.  In 1954, an inter-agency group of specialists formed the Joint Numerical Weather Prediction Unit, which processed weather observations from ground stations and began to generate basic forecasts on the computer.  Radar made its mark on the government’s weather-related agencies in the 1950s as well, and in 1960, the launch of the first weather satellite provided a source of observations from far above the troposphere.  In 1970, in the 100th year after its formation, the Weather Bureau—which had been moved to the Department of Commerce five years earlier in recognition of the profound impact of weather on commerce—became known as the National Weather Service.

 History of Privatization Proposals

It had begun as a military agency; twenty years later it became a civilian one; its parent department had changed more than once.  Still, throughout its long history, one thing had remained constant about the National Weather Service:  It was a part of the United States federal government, its operations uncontroversially agreed upon to be a proper function of the government.  While conservatives and liberals argued heatedly about the role of government in New Deal operations in the 1930s, a series of killer hurricanes—including a 1935 storm that devastated the Florida Keys with two-hundred-mile-per-hour winds and killed as many as 600 people—directed debates about the Weather Bureau only in the direction of how it could prevent such tragedies from happening again.  The focus was on improvement of the agency[1].

However, toward the end of the twentieth century, a new idea surfaced.  Swept into office by public dissatisfaction with perceived incompetence, overreach, and corruption in government, the Reagan administration made federal budget cuts and privatization of civilian government functions a central plank in its domestic agenda.  John Byrne, the director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) under President Ronald Reagan, produced a proposal in 1983 to cut costs by selling United States-owned weather satellites to the highest private bidder, buying back the data the satellites provided, and dismantling the forecasting arm of the National Weather Service.  The private sector, Byrne said, could provide forecasts to the public—and would do a better job at it than the federal government.  However, the public did not agree, and the highly unpopular proposal was tabled soon after it was floated[2].

Throughout the 1990s, the notion of privatizing all or part of the National Weather Service (or related agencies) stayed mostly on the outskirts of political discourse despite a Congress with strong philosophical sympathies for small government.  Privatization talk was kept down by a vibrant economy, a popular president opposed to privatizing the agency, and a decade unmarred by any exceptionally large loss of American lives in a weather event, including the well-forecast Category 5 Hurricane Andrew.  During the first half of the 2000s, a strong focus on war and national security and a continued reprieve from highly deadly weather events also kept privatization from coming up in discourse.

However, in 2005, after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, the idea of privatizing the National Weather Service became a topic of public debate once more.  Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania introduced a bill (S. B. 786, 109th Congress, 1st Session) that would have prohibited the agency from publishing forecasts directly to the public except for urgent severe weather events.  The agency would have had to provide its “routine” forecasts to private-sector companies instead.  The bill placed no restrictions on whether the private firms could then charge the public to receive the forecasts that their tax money had paid for, nor did it institute requirements for the private purveyors even to be trained in meteorology.

In public, Santorum harshly criticized NOAA, accusing the National Hurricane Center of doing a poor job of forecasting Katrina.  Other Senators from his own political party and public officials from the affected states of Louisiana and Mississippi disputed that claimThe meteorology community largely rallied against the proposal and in support of the NWS, uncovering evidence that Santorum had received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from executives in a large privately owned Pennsylvania weather firm and intimating that this was his motivation for introducing such a bill.  Santorum lost his Senate seat in the 2006 election, though largely for reasons unrelated to this failed bill.

The idea of privatizing-by-proxy arose once more in 2011, when the new House of Representatives proposed a budget that would cut funding for the National Weather Service by 30 percent.  The budget also included cuts for the National Hurricane Center, the aerial reconnaissance operations into hurricanes, and the National Buoy Data Center.  Supporters of the proposal, including the private firm AccuWeather, defended the budget cuts by saying that the private sector outperformed the Weather Service.  A controversial pro-privatization editorial by climate bloggers Iain Murray and David Bier was published on the website of Fox News, and after attacks from privatization opponents, they defended their piece in the popular scientifically oriented climate-change skeptic website “Watts Up With That”.  Their original Fox piece has become the primary source of arguments for adherents of privatizing the Weather Service and related agencies.

Arguments in Favor of Privatization

Arguments in favor of privatizing weather operations usually originate from a principled opposition to what is perceived as “big government.”  As a result, the debate has become politicized.  However, adherents also advance arguments based upon “truth claims” and testable hypotheses.  These empirical or practical claims revolve around a cost-benefit analysis involving the efficiency and accuracy of the agency’s products versus what is spent to generate them.

The federal government spends almost $1 billion for National Weather Service operations alone, a figure that does not include maintenance of many satellites or oceanic observations.  The agency is the single biggest expenditure in NOAA.  In an era of severe budget deficits and decreased tax revenue from a slow economic recovery, arguments in support of trimming government expenses that are not strictly necessary should be considered seriously.

Proponents of NWS privatization argue that forecasting the weather is indeed an unnecessary government function, because the private sector could do the same job more accurately.  The general public already receives much of its weather information from privately owned sources, primarily broadcast meteorologists on television.  Most of these sources relay the forecasts of the National Weather Service, but with the advent of a nationwide network of personal weather stations, public participation in data-gathering, and a nationwide private sector of broadcasting firms and weather websites, much of the process has already been privatized, adherents say, so there is no reason for the government to do anything “behind the scenes” anymore.

Proponents also argue that a vibrant, competitive free market encourages competitors to improve their products, a basic application of capitalist theory to the product of a weather forecast.  Though a weather forecast is scientific information rather than a tangible consumer product, privatization adherents are not the first to apply economic theory to a scientific process.  In 1979, Latour and Woolgar noted that a scientific laboratory could be seen as a capitalist enterprise and heads of laboratories can be competitive with each other.

Historical support exists for this claim that competition among forecasters can result in improvement.  In the 1950s, the Weather Bureau did not issue any sort of warning for tornadoes.  Forecasting was not at a level of expertise in the Bureau at which such warnings could be issued with confidence, and the Bureau feared a “cry wolf” scenario of false alarms.  However, the Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma was issuing tornado warnings for itself.  Television meteorologist Harry Volkman received the base’s information and issued on-air tornado warnings for civilian areas as well.  Officials in Washington, DC were not pleased, but Volkman’s employer and the Air Force base supported him.  The Weather Bureau finally had to relent and begin issuing warnings for tornadoes, which meant that their forecasting had to improve[2].

Finally, proponents of privatization make a specific claim that is, in theory, testable:  the claim that the private sector already produces better weather forecasts than the National Weather Service.

Arguments Against Privatization

When Santorum introduced his 2005 bill and made his specific public criticisms of the National Weather Service, members of the meteorology community—whether scientist or amateur hobbyist—largely came out strongly against the idea and defended the agency.  Santorum’s claims that the Hurricane Center did a poor job of forecasting Hurricane Katrina compared to the large Pennsylvania firm AccuWeather were immediately tested and found to be untrue.  Moreover, scientists and small-scale entrepreneurs in the weather community have an additional set of concerns regarding the consequences of privatization.

Most NOAA weather data are available free of charge to the public with few restrictions on usage.  Scientists use the data in their research, including downloading digital records to run in computer model simulations of past weather events.  Private firms also use the data, perfectly legally, to make a profit.  The broadcast meteorology sector, including The Weather Channel, uses NWS data for its own products, which make money from advertising revenue.  Smaller private firms such as Gibson Ridge Software take official weather model and observation data and repackage them to be useful and visually attractive to meteorologists.  Gibson Ridge produces radar viewing software that many meteorologists have bought, but the data that the programs read are from the NWS.  AccuWeather, which issues its own forecasts and has some television stations subscribing to them rather than the NWS forecasts, derives its products from governmental data.

However, if a private company were to gather weather observations, those data would become the intellectual property of that company.  Indeed, the products that private firms create from repackaged or modified NOAA data are considered protected intellectual property, even though the original sources are not.  The possibility of fees to use privately acquired data in research would arise at once, and with that would come attendant concerns of additional funding requirements for any such research—in an era in which funding is difficult to come by.  However, the effect upon the existing private sector would be even greater.  Although John Byrne’s 1983 privatization proposal would have had the government purchase satellite data back from the firms that maintained the satellites, such a contract would not necessarily have to stipulate that the government could then redistribute the data for free with no restrictions attached.  Indeed, one would not expect the private firm in the contract to want this outcome, as it would allow competitors to use that same dataset without paying for it.  Any entity, corporate or individual, seeking to generate a new product would likely have to either buy the data or acquire its own.

The acquisition of data is itself an argument against privatization.  Generating a good weather forecast requires a vast network of sources far greater than the personal weather stations that adherents say are a form of privatization.  In fact, the use of personal weather stations is not a new phenomenon.  Private individuals made such observations with barometers, rain gauges, and thermometers in the nineteenth century, but it was not nearly enough data to produce an accurate forecast, nor were the observations necessarily reliable.  The modern network used by NOAA includes highly calibrated ground stations, radar domes, satellites, aircraft reports, buoys, and weather balloons to acquire accurate and trustworthy observations; million-dollar supercomputers to run the numerical weather models in reasonably fast time; teams of experts who can focus on small areas when urgent forecasts or warnings are needed.  All the components are necessary.  The sheer scale and expense of the infrastructure requirements locks out most organizations from ownership except the federal government and large private companies.  Other enterprises that require a large-scale, expensive infrastructure have monopolies, such as the telecommunications industry, the passenger railroad industry, and the cable industry on a local scale.  It is plausible that in a privatized weather data network, a monopoly would develop in response to the problem of managing such a vast infrastructure.

The problem of data ownership in a privatized National Weather Service is global.  While some data sources, such as satellites, can acquire observations from around the world, other types of global observations cannot be gathered by NOAA because of national sovereignty.  However, since the atmosphere is global and the principles of fluid dynamics dictate that changes in one part will affect a part elsewhere, it is nonetheless crucial for global data to be available for numerical weather modeling.  The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) is a consortium of governmental agencies tasked with forecasting the weather, and through the WMO, data-sharing occurs across national boundaries.  The WMO certifies data sources—including those maintained by NOAA—as being “official” for scientific purposes.  While it could certify data from a private source, the seal of WMO certification itself would provide a distinct advantage to any firm that obtained it, further encouraging a monopoly to develop.

Finally, the argument of proponents that the existing private sector generates better forecasts than the National Weather Service is not borne out.  In the first place, the matter of determining forecast accuracy is inherently subjective, since it depends upon the importance given to a variety of forecast components.  Most forecasts are considered good by the public if the high and low temperatures for a given day are close to those forecasted.  However, on days when precipitation occurs, that factor is usually given more significance because it is more disruptive; a forecast with accurate temperatures that failed to predict a rain storm would not be considered a good forecast by most people.  Even more disruptive events, such as severe weather, are given greater importance still in personal assessments of accuracy; a forecast that correctly predicted the temperature and rainfall but completely missed a tornado outbreak would definitely not be considered a good forecast—as the Weather Bureau of the 1950s learned the hard way.  The fuzzy nature of forecast accuracy has enabled claims to be made by privatization supporters and opponents that either the private sector or Weather Service clearly does a better job.  However, a 2007 study that looked at the most basic of variables—the daily temperature—found that the source with the best forecasts varied.  Private firms generally produced better same-day forecasts than the NWS, but the NWS did better one to three days in advance.  Farther out than that, private firms beat the NWS again.  However, privatization proponents’ claims that the private sector unambiguously beats the NWS were not supported in this aspect of forecasting.


Supporters of privatizing the NWS and related agencies have made two “hard” claims, the claim that privatization would save money and the claim that the private sector produces better forecasts already.  The latter assertion, however, cannot be demonstrated to be true, and the invocation of the more than $1 billion spent on all weather-related operations is balanced against a consideration of what that money buys, which is much more than just weather forecasts, but a pool of data that supports research and an existing free market that any entrepreneur could enter at a very low cost.  Perhaps because they ultimately originate from a principled objection to the government’s participation in any activity that could be commercialized, arguments for privatization have been focused primarily on the supposed benefit to the “consumer,” meaning the non-meteorologist public, and have virtually ignored the extremely significant impact on those in the scientific and enterprise community who are not merely consumers of the data, but also producers of new products from it.

Other arguments both for and against privatization have been largely theoretical.  Those in favor have theorized that a competitive free market would be able to produce better forecasts than a government agency, and those against have theorized a chilling effect upon scientific research and the existing private sector, which depend on public-domain data.  Since existing evidence does not provide support to the adherents’ hypothesis, whereas the scenarios of opponents are certainly possible under intellectual property law, it is best to continue public funding for agencies of NOAA with the responsibility of collecting weather data and providing forecasts.

Essentially, the data generated by NOAA have become a public resource that can be used and exploited like any other public resource, but with the benefit of being virtual and therefore not exhaustible.  Scientific research takes place and a healthy private sector already exists because the majority of weather observations produced by NOAA are free for public use.  Furthermore, no law exists that would prohibit a company from gathering its own private data, including launching a satellite to do so, nor from running its own supercomputers to generate numerical forecasts.  Turning a public resource into a privately owned store of intellectual property would, ironically enough, be potentially very detrimental to a free market built upon competition.  For these reasons, the operations of the National Weather Service and its related agencies should not be defunded and privatized.


[1] Davies, Pete, 2000:  Inside the Hurricane:  Face to Face with Nature’s Deadliest Storms.  Holt, pp. 71-73

[2] Mathis, Nancy, 2007:  Storm Warning:  The Story of a Killer Tornado.  Touchstone, pp. 84-86, 90-93.

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