Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Dire threats to the National Weather Service?

As I write this, there is much weeping and gnashing of teeth regarding the possibility of massive cuts to the National Weather Service (NWS), including a possible shutdown of the whole Federal government. I'm going to avoid any purely political aspects of this current situation. Instead, I want to offer some perspective on the existing financial 'crisis'.

First of all, during all my 30+ years of working for the Federal Government, I don't recall a single moment when the budget wasn't under pressure. I never experienced a time when everyone was satisfied with, and grateful for, their fiscal support -- it was only a matter of episodic fluctuations in the depth of the continuous 'crisis'! Somehow, we managed to muddle through all those crises, although I must say the long-term trend has been one of declining budgets relative to their buying power (thanks to inflation, among other things). Slowly, but surely, things have deteriorated relative to what they were -- see my essay here for an interpretation of this.

Second, let me begin by saying I'm not an enemy of the NWS! I have no vested interest in seeing them suffer. I have too many NWS friends for that, and though I have no illusions about its management, I believe sincerely that the NWS more than pays for society's investment in its services (perhaps many, many times over!), although it's difficult to put numbers on the return on investment. However -- given that we have only sketchy understanding, at best, of how valuable the NWS products are, it becomes difficult to justify the expense when we have yet another fiscal 'crisis'.

I've suggested via another medium that the cessation of products from the NWS might provide an interesting test of just how valuable their products are to the public they purport to serve. To what extent would an interruption in those services result in major problems for the broad range of public users of weather forecasts? Although I have no evidence to back up what I'm about to say, it seems clear to me that the biggest challenge to the NWS is that there might not be any noticeable effect, as perceived by the majority of the the public!!

Since the NWS has abdicated any meaningful role in product dissemination, preferring instead to leave that for the private sector, that same private sector could (and would) take up a lot of the duties abandoned by the NWS during a financial crisis. And they would do so more than a little gleefully! And it's likely that the products seen by the public would remain at some level close to what they now experience!! This could lead to some embarrassing questions, such as, "If there was so little impact, perhaps it's time for the government to divest itself of this enterprise and allow the private sector to do it?" There have been several attempts by certain political sectors to do just this in the past. Although those attempts were unsuccessful then, the time might be ripe for them finally to win this war. And those pressures will not go away even if they fail once again.

While the annual per capita cost to individual taxpayers for all the NWS services amounts to about the price of a meal at a fast-food restaurant (a huge bargain!), the biggest cost driver for the NWS operation is personnel. If you want to reduce the NWS budget to skeletal levels (e.g., only collecting observations, which the private sector doesn't want to pay for), the fastest way to do so is to cut staffing. Closing offices may be politically difficult, but it's possible that this 'crisis' or the next will see the draconian cuts that everyone in the system fears.

I don't know how to set national priorities (Does anyone?), but I believe that most people aren't particularly concerned about the weather most of the time. They want to know about when it will affect them personally, and they seem to expect perfect forecasts for those occasions when it does affect them, but -- for the majority of the time -- they have other things that concern them. Will there be a groundswell of support for the NWS this time? Maybe. Or maybe not.

Some of us have been anticipating the demise of the human forecaster in the public sector for some time, now. The economics of it are all against the humans. Automated systems run for pennies a day, never go on vacation, and don't get paid after they 'retire'. What's worse is tha human forecasters have, for the most part, chosen to allow the metastasis of meteorological cancer by not doing what it takes to add significant value to automated guidance, which only hastens the day when the economics of this will become so compelling as to result in the loss of those public sector forecaster jobs. I'm pretty confident that NWS managers aren't going to pour gasoline over their heads to help with the budget crisis, despite the bloated NOAA/NWS bureaucracy!

We may yet "weather" this crisis with minimal damage. But there is always another on the horizon. The words of the prophets are written on the Beltway walls and academic halls ... the sounds of silence may yet characterize NWS offices in the future.

Research, travel, and training are easy targets for budget cuts. The NWS does no meaningful training, of course, and they're already stingy with travel (except for bureaucrats). Cutting research will have no short-term impact, of course, but will have devastating results in the future. NWS forecasters argue that they are "essential" personnel (see above), but have little empathy for their research colleagues: when the pie shrinks, the immediate 'family' gets more pie than distant relatives.


Scott said...

One idea I often ponder is the NWS should stop issuing general forecasts and leave it to the private sector. As a former TWC meteorologist and now 'hobbyist' weather forecaster, I can usually make my own weather forecast. But when I go to weather.gov and compare its product to weather.com, I rarely see much of a difference in their forecast products.
In my opinion, the NWS should focus its resources on specialized forecasts (SELS/NHC/etc), collecting weather data, improving the national weather data network (radar/UA data/bouys/etc), and running the daily NWP products. They should also start charging appropriate user fees for the data (obs/nexrad/model output/etc) to the private weather community and stop essentially giving it away as they do now. The NWS does charge users a nominal user fee, but it does not cover the costs involved in data collection, running the models, maintaining NWS equipment, etc.

Chuck Doswell said...

You're hardly the first to propose such a change that would turn over forecasts to the private sector, for the most part. You're entitled to your opinion, of course.

Charging only cost recovery for distributing already-collected weather data is probably one of the most enlightened polices of the NWS. It allows for affordable research around the world. In Europe, for instance, the high cost for data in their own backyard means that many researchers have turned to the NWS for data.

Scott said...

I should have clarified my last point a little better. I should have said 'private weather companies' instead of 'private weather communities' Yes, university researchers should have access to NWS data at a lower cost, and it's a shame that the European weather service does not distinguish between private weather companies and university researchers. As a taxpayer, I don't mind my taxes going to continuing to explore the many fields of the earth sciences in the form of research. But I do have problems with TWC or AccuWeather receiving what is essentially a data subsidy from the government.

Jason said...

After working in the private met sector for 3 years--I can say I could never see the private industry fulfilling the position of the NWS any time soon or the technologies in place already within the NWS. The logistics of setting up a "private" NWS would take years--and honestly it seems more likely the opposite would happen with NCEP potentially forcing fees on the guidance with increased forecasting priorities for local offices. The strives within the NWS towards decision support services and "impact based forecasting" seem to suggest they are trying to break into private weather territory.

Chuck Doswell said...

We'll see what the future holds regsrding the public vs. private sector forecasting roles. This medium is not the place for a deep discussion of this topic -- I have several essays on the general subject of public sector forecasters, but have yet to write one focused only on public vs. private sector. Stay tuned on my website.

Anonymous said...

Not a good time to be going into a meteorology career - most private sector jobs are know to pay very poorly so if they take over the NWS duties this is bad news for meteorologists.

Tom said...

I'm interested in your insights into the subject of public vs private sector forecasting. Personally, I'm concerned that the rural areas of the country will see the biggest impact from cutbacks in public forecasting.

Chuck Doswell said...


Becoming a meteorologist has never been the most promising career choice. We tend to do it because we have the passion, not because it's the best career choice.

If the NWS does experience cutbacks in staffing, career opportunities in forecasting could diminish, but ... this has been happening slowly over the past decades anyway.