Every few years, some U.S. Congressman or Senator tests the waters of privatizing major functions of the National Weather Service. About a decade ago, it was Senator Rick Santorum, who in a 2005 bill, proposed that the National Weather Service be prohibited from providing "a product or service that is or could be provided by the private sector." Which meant that the distribution of all weather forecasts and warnings would then move to private sectors entities. His proposal was definitively defeated.
Rick Santorum wanted to move most National Weather Service functions
to the private sector.
And now a U.S. Congressman from Oklahoma, Rep. Jim Bridenstine, is trying to follow in Santorum's footsteps, through sections of his new legislation, the National Space Renaissance Act. For example, this legislation says:
"Before commencing the development of any program, the (NOAA) Administrator shall certify to Congress that no commercial capability or service, with or without reasonable modifications, can meet the requirements for which such program is being developed."
And in a congressional hearing on the National Weather Service's relationship with the private sector, Congressman Bridenstine made it clear that he is pushing for the National Weather Service to collect data and run models, leaving all other functions to the private sector.
Both Senator Santorum and Congressman Bridenstine have targeted the existence of the roughly 120 National Weather Service forecast offices around the nation (see map). These offices are staffed 24/7 with highly experienced forecasters and staff, whose primary job is to provide local forecasts and warnings, but who also play important roles in coordinating with local governments, emergency managers, and the general population.
So why is it extremely important to maintain these local NWS offices? Let me provide a few examples:
1. They are staffed with experienced meteorologists who have deep knowledge of their local meteorology. It is not unusual for NWS forecasters to remain at offices for decades and thus build up experience of both typical and unusual weather events, with the latter being particularly valuable. This is very different from private sector firms such as Accuweather, with forecast offices in two locations (State College, PA and Wichita, KS) and staffed by younger, less experienced forecasters than is true for the National Weather Service.
2. National Weather Service forecasters and staff interact with local governments and emergency managers, both interpreting forecasts and helping these key users of weather information to be prepared for severe weather.
24-h a day, National Weather Service Forecasters Are Watching the Weather
3. Local NWS offices have staff to maintain and upgrade key observational assets, such as observations at major airports, community observer programs, and local weather radars and upper air observations. They also help calibrate observations for cooperative marine observers.
4. Local NWS offices provide ONE DEFINITIVE voice for severe weather warnings. This is a critical function. Confused or varying messaging for severe weather would confuse the public and reduce effective response. And one wonders whether the private sector would want to take on the legal responsibilities for such warnings.
An issue of more sensitivity is that the level of responsibility and scientific rigor varies among private sector firms, with issues of marketing and profit coming into play. For example, Accuweather is now offering detailed daily forecasts out to 90 days, a product that is completely out of line with the science and technology of weather prediction.
The bottom line is clear: local National Weather Service forecasts offices should be maintained and attempts to privatize their functions should be rejected.
As I have noted before, the Puget Sound region is fortunate to have a poet laureate of weather cams in our midst, Greg Johnson of Skunk Bay Weather. Check out his wonderful video of Friday's sky and be prepared to be deeply moved. Found here.
My graduate student, Connor McNicholas has developed a wonderful weather app that collects pressures on Android smartphones and gives you all kinds of valuable weather information. We believe we can revolutionize weather prediction using dense collections of pressures from smartphones. We need folks to try this app (and it already has been evaluated by dozens of folks) to ensure it works well. If you are willing to help, you can get more information and download it here: https://www.cmetwx.com/