Friday, May 06, 2005

Blue Skies or Stormy Weather for the Weather Service?

I'm reminded of the weather rock I saw in a thrift store. The inscription said "If rock is wet, it's raining." The weather rock is NEVER wrong. That much can't be said for other weather forecasters. Who's got the best record for accurate predictions, the government or private weather forecasting services? A simple question to which I couldn't find an answer. Maybe these people do. In any case, while trying to find the answer I ran across this neat little tutorial on how weather forecasts are created.

When I was growing up it was called the Weather Bureau and it was the only game in town. Now its the National Weather Service, and they're no longer alone in making forecasts. There are several competitors, including the Weather Channel and AccuWeather.

OK, so what was once a government monopoly is now an oligopoly. The new guys who entered the market knew that they would be competing against the government's service, but they found investors who provided start up capital and with the passage of time they established themselves in the marketplace. Now, they would like to emasculate that pesky competitor that's funded by the taxpayers. Tax funding provides a unfair advantage, they cry. But do they tell their customers that their forecasts are based on . . . data and forecasts provided by the Weather Service?

Senator Rick Santorum, Republican of Pennsylvania, has proposed legislation that makes the future of the Weather Service as murky as sewer water after a summer cloudburst. According to the linked story,

His bill instructs the commerce secretary not to give out weather information "that is or could be" provided by the private sector, except for storm warnings. It says that information instead should be channeled through "data portals" designed for "volume access by commercial providers."

The Weather Service would be a handmaiden to the private forecasters if this legislation passes. I can see the benefits to private forecasters. They would profit from the government's huge investment in weather satellites and other assets used in collecting weather data. At the same time, the Weather Service's role would shift from that of competitor to that of input supplier to the private firms. What a cold, dark day in the proud 135 year history of the Weather Service that would be.

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