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U.S. News
Panel says Weather Service still plays a key role

Friday, January 31, 2003

By Don Hopey, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Although the political climate favors private enterprise, you still need a National Weather Service to tell which way the wind blows and do other data collection and forecasting chores, according to a new report from the National Academy of Sciences.

The report issued yesterday says the Weather Service should continue to issue daily forecasts and weather advisories, rebuffing a storm of complaints from private meteorology and forecasting companies who say the free weather information the government provides is competing with services they can sell.

Some members of Congress have called on the Weather Service to privatize more services and avoid competition with the private sector.

"The report recognizes that the Weather Service, the academic community and the private sector all have their roles to play and should cooperate," said Edward Johnson, director of the office of strategic planning for the Weather Service.

By law the Weather Service is required to issue warnings of hazardous weather conditions and provide forecasts affecting air and marine travel.

The Academy's National Research Council report recommends that the Weather Service's 135 regional offices should discontinue making forecasts specifically tailored to particular organizations or industries, like ski resorts, truckers, sporting events and shipping lines, that may compete with forecasts offered by the private sector, where more than 400 companies operate.

Many targeted forecasts, like those for Florida fruit growers, have been discontinued in recent years, but others are still available.

The report also urged the Weather Service to make all its weather and climate data accessible to private commercial forecasters, who have charged that some information has been withheld for internal and research use.

Advances in science and technology have contributed to the rapid growth of commercial meteorology companies and multiplied conflicts with the Weather Service.

Thirty years ago, 95 percent of the public got its weather information from newspapers, radio and television weather forecasts provided by the Weather Service. And just a decade ago, federal agencies collected nearly all of the weather measurement data and operated nearly all of the forecasting models.

Today, private companies, state and local government agencies and universities deploy their own weather data instruments and run their own or other commercially available forecasting models. And 85 percent to 90 percent of the public gets its weather forecasts from private commercial weather services.

The rapid changes in weather and climate forecasting technology are likely to continue. Weather information available on the Internet has also changed the landscape.

"It is counterproductive to set detailed and rigid boundaries for each sector outlining who can issue particular forecasts or products," said John Armstrong, retired research vice president at IBM and the committee chair. "Instead, efforts should focus on improving the process by which the private and public providers of weather information interact."

In Pittsburgh, KDKA-TV uses Accuweather, WPXI uses the Carnegie Science Center, WTAE uses Air Science Consultants along with its own meteorologists, and WPGH-FOX53 weather forecasts are developed by its meteorologist Matt Morano.

"I think there's room for both. I like to be aware of what the Weather Service has out there but I develop my own forecasts," Morano said.

Maria Pirone, chairwoman of the Commercial Weather Services Association, the industry trade group, said the report will be valuable if it fosters better cooperation in weather forecasting.

"There's room for everybody,' she said.

But some of the association's members, among them Accuweather, are more militant and want the Weather Service to confine its activities to gathering weather data and issuing severe storm warnings.

"No one uses the government forecasts. They're a waste of $500 million a year," said Joel Myers, founder and president of State College-based Accuweather, which provides forecasts to television, radio and 851 newspapers, including this one. "That money would be better used by the Weather Service to do better data collection and produce more accurate forecasting models."

But Joe DiNardo, longtime meteorologist at WTAE, said the Weather Service forecasts are important as a starting point for private forecasters.

"Everybody looks at the analysis of the Weather Service. They may not agree with it, but it's another aid they can use," he said. "If I had a consulting service today, I would use the Weather Service models and other models. There's nothing wrong with that. Two minds are better than one."

Don Hopey can be reached at dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.

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