The Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) picks an odd time and a curious target for their latest missive pondering whether We Really Need a National Weather Service? Most of their arguments are not particularly persuasive and are easily dismissed by bringing a few background facts to the discussion. While it’s undeniable that the Obama administration has used the National Weather Service and “satellite funding” for political purposes, questioning the continued need for the NWS stretches the imagination.
The CEI article begins: (emphasis mine)
While Americans ought to prepare for the coming storm (Irene), federal dollars need not subsidize their preparations. Although it might sound outrageous, the truth is that the National Hurricane Center and its parent agency, the National Weather Service, are relics from America’s past that have actually outlived their usefulness.
Today the NWS justifies itself on public interest grounds. It issues severe weather advisories and hijacks local radio and television stations to get the message out. It presumes that citizens do not pay attention to the weather and so it must force important, perhaps lifesaving, information upon them. A few seconds’ thought reveals how silly this is. The weather might be the subject people care most about on a daily basis. There is a very successful private TV channel dedicated to it, 24 hours a day, as well as any number of phone and PC apps. Americans need not be forced to turn over part of their earnings to support weather reporting.
First, the CEI lowers itself when using the language of the left; hijack is not a term to be used for emergency warnings on the radio. Private radio and private television meteorologists cut-in all the time to their local stations for up-to-date weather information. If not in front of a TV or radio, they use their handheld devices. But where do these private outfits get their data? Where do these private outfits get their forecasts from? It’s the National Weather Service! In one way or another, almost the entire private weather forecasting industry is dependent upon the services provided by the government including NOAA, NWS, and even NASA with other data sharing arrangements with various world governments.
Indeed the Weather Underground, the Weather Channel, and Accuweather may simply reprint the forecast numbers of temperature and precipitation chances directly from the National Digital Forecast Database put out by the NWS. I know of many nationwide local television meteorologists that sometimes phone it in by forecasting MOS everyday. Regardless, the NWS forecasts or the output from the many different numerical weather prediction products is the first or second place that private forecasters go for guidance.
With the ongoing Hurricane Irene, let me discuss how these supposedly useless government funded forecasts are being used. First, in order to generate the best possible initial conditions for tropical storm track, and the entire weather model forecast, we need lots of data both in-situ (stations, balloons, aircraft), as well as satellite remote sensing. This is not only a nationwide effort but a truly global scale endeavor. If we do not know the initial conditions over China, our 5-day forecasts over the west coast would be considerably worse. Similarly, if the government funded reconnaissance flights from the military and NOAA did not fly through Irene or sample the environment around the storm, our track and intensity forecasts would be worse, a lot worse.
NOAA, the NWS, and the National Hurricane Center have coordinated for decades with universities and other government labs to develop the best possible data assimilation and mathematical modeling techniques. The national research and operations infrastructure developed, maintained, and advanced using government funding is truly something to be prideful about in America.
Suggesting that insurance companies or other private entities would have come up with this sort of infrastructure is fantastical and exhibits ignorance of the military-scale coordination necessary for the entire system to work. Since the private corporations are taxpayers as well, they are justified in making use of the government subsidized data network including satellites and supercomputer weather forecasts — and adding value for their particular sector of the economy. While food stamps and unemployment checks may be the best way for the Obama administration to stimulate the economy, I’d argue that providing the best forecasts, technology, and expertise in weather is one of the best fiscal multipliers out there aside from the threat of space alien attacks.