Through the years I have spent a lot of time educating people as to how meteorologists gather weather information and create a forecast. I usually describe the myriad weather instruments that we use on a daily basis. These range from the simple thermometer all the way up to complicated “high-tech” instruments such as radars and satellites. I hope I have done a good job and that people in Northcentral Wisconsin have a good grasp on the need for weather instruments in order have accurate forecasts.
That wasn’t the case during a U.S. congressional hearing about NASA’s budget when one representative commented – ‘why do we need to spend so much money on satellites when we have got the weather channel?’ The weather channel provides a fine service – they organize, forecast, and present a lot of useful weather information, but even they rely heavily on weather instrument networks which are largely supported by the government – including satellites.
Satellites are a key tool in our forecasting arsenal. Unfortunately, they have a limited lifespan. Most weather satellites have historically lasted 5 to 15 years in space. The dozens of satellites in service need to be replaced regularly and it is not cheap to launch them. (ESA started launching some new weather satellites recently). The average cost of launching a satellite in the recent past was around $300 or 400 million. It is expected to be around $50 million over the next decade, so that is a significant improvement, but it is still not cheap.
Because “space” is not cheap, and we have an ongoing recession in the U.S and world, NASA and NOAA’s budgets are getting cut. Many people in those organizations are worried about keeping a robust suite of high-tech weather instruments - such as satellites – operational. Maybe it is time to get the private sector more involved? I know this might sound ridiculous to those in the know, but perhaps there are cost savings to be had and more speed/efficiency to boot.
The U.S. government monopolized the “source” weather information over a hundred years ago. Constitutionally, this was justified through the military as potentially successful military operations can be severely hindered by bad weather. The early military application of the government-sponsored weather operations gradually morphed into public forecasts as well. Because it has been such a long time, it is hard to imagine private companies providing similar products. The National Weather Service is one of the most popular government agencies and they do an effective job, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be better done in the private sector. Would you pay a couple dollars per month for weather information? Most of us already pay that much or more in taxes to support NASA and NOAA. I am unsure if there is a good business case right now for a partial or complete privatization of weather information in the U.S. Forecasts are already very good for most end-users of weather information (whether it comes from NOAA or private outlets like The Weather Channel). The forecast would have to be far superior to entice people to pay for it (considering that they already pay for weather information with taxes)
One stumbling block is that the government monopoly on sourcing weather information is so ingrained and has lasted so long that most people probably consider it a “public good” or a “public right” – something that is critical for “public safety”. Thus private industry will probably continue to provide more niche weather information and not be launching too many weather satellites anytime soon.
Have a good weekend! Meteorologist Justin Loew.