This week's two-day storm brought us the requisite silly images of TV reporters standing alongside Route 128 at the first flake, scraping snow from the ground to judge its snowball suitability as cars, trucks and semis speed past on dark pavement. We had shots of people lining up to buy snowblowers and rock salt at the local hardware store, and folks clearing their driveways were asked if they were ready for it to all be over, as if someone would possibly be happy to be shoveling.
There's a reason for all the hoopla. Weather is big business, and not just for television stations overplaying six inches of snow in an effort to bring more eyeballs to the screen. Private weather forecasting -- encompassing everything from the Weather Channel to companies that help airlines figure out when to de-ice planes to firms that try to predict the rainfall and drought conditions for farmers -- is a $7 billion a year industry. And it is only going to grow.
Traditionally, those private firms have developed their products using data gathered and freely shared by the scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But that development has been so profitable that many private firms have made enough money to to launch their own data-collection and analysis efforts. The results these companies are getting are, in many cases, outpacing what NOAA and the National Weather Service can offer. And increasingly, those private companies have been slow to share with NOAA what they developed using the publicly provided data.
The risk is that the innovation gap will lead to a United States where those who can afford access to the best in weather-prediction technology will have it, and those who rely on the government will be left behind.
“I don’t want to get into a world, frankly, where if you have more resources, you can get a better forecast,” Scott Rayder, a former chief of staff to the NOAA director under President George W. Bush, told the Washington Post. “There’s got to be a minimum level of warning and forecasts to protect life and property.”
Clearly, Congress and President Donald Trump must increase investment in NOAA and the National Weather Service, to put them on an equal footing with private companies. And it must also make sure it has appropriate access to the private innovations fostered by free access to public data.
The stakes are high. Accurate predictions are becoming increasingly important in an era of accelerated climate change in more frequent cataclysmic weather. The California wildfires of the last two years have cost more than $40 billion in damage. Closer to home, worsening coastal storms continue to threaten homeowners and fishermen alike, and tick-borne diseases have become a 10-month threat.
To be sure, public-private partnerships can spur innovation.
Last month, for example, IBM and the nonprofit National Center for Atmospheric Research unveiled a forecast model that may accurately predict small-scale events such as severe thunderstorms. While the forecast covers only 12 hours it could be a boon for places like Africa and South Asia that have poor infrastructure and little to no professional forecasting. A head-start of 12 hours is a lifeline when tropical cyclones approach.
In recent years, however, government has trailed private industry in innovation.
“When you look at a flash-flood warning, it looks about the same as it did 25 years ago,” Mary Glackin, president-elect of the American Meteorological Society, told the Washington Post. “You kind of know a whole lot more about where your Lyft or Uber driver is and when he’s going to get to you than you know about any flash flood in relation to your geography.”
There may come a time when we can pay extra for a subscription service that gives us personalized weather forecasts, much like we sign on for Netflix and Hulu today. But that service should be just that -- extra.
“Governments are still going to be focused on protecting lives and property,” said Rei Goffer, co-founder and chief strategy officer of ClimaCell, which works on forecasting with airports, including Boston's Logan. “A future where it costs you money to get a hurricane alert is a bad future, and we shouldn’t be aiming for that.”