The weather forecasting services the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration offers through its National Weather Service are very good.
But they could be better, particularly if they used data collected by private weather-observing companies. That was the argument being made by weather industry representatives at a panel discussion held Tuesday at the American Meteorological Society's Washington Forum.
The case for private data purchases by NOAA is one some in the weather community have been making for years, but passage of a new weather bill in the House on Tuesday renewed hope that the agency might move toward outsourcing more of its weather data. If implemented well, the idea is that outsourcing data could save the agency money while improving its forecast products.
"NOAA used to be the No. 1 forecasting [producer] on the planet, but now I think you are seeing private companies, including Panasonic, developing forecast models that are better than what NOAA has," Neil Jacobs, of Panasonic Avionics Corp., said in an interview yesterday.
Panasonic uses weather data it collects from instruments on airplanes, along with publicly available weather data from NOAA, to create custom forecasts for a wide range of companies, from energy traders to agricultural interests.
From 2004 to 2011 it also sold its airplane weather data to NOAA. In reviews of the usefulness of that Panasonic weather information, known as Tropospheric Airborne Meteorological Data Reporting, or TAMDAR, agency employees reported that it significantly improved their forecast skill.
But when budget cuts came, the agency stopped purchasing from Panasonic. The company shifted its business to making custom forecasts for the private sector, Jacobs said, even though its original business plan was based on selling to NOAA.
The passage of the Superstorm Sandy supplemental appropriations bill in early 2013 returned some funding for the agency to purchase the airplane data, but only for a year and a half, Jacobs added.
Pitches and pressure for outsourcing
That lack of certainty that the government will invest long term in purchasing commercial weather data, even if it improves forecasts, is a large barrier for private weather data companies looking to include the weather forecasting agency in their business model, said John Lasley, a meteorologist and fellow of the American Meteorological Society who now runs a weather service consulting business.
The National Weather Service has partnered with some weather data providers like Earth Networks and Vaisala, which provide lightning data that support storm prediction.
But it could get a lot more high-quality data by partnering with private satellite companies, said Jon Kirchner, the president of GeoOptics, whose constellation of small, low-Earth-orbiting satellites use a system called GPS radio occultation to provide what Kirchner called "rock-star data" for both weather and climate applications.
"We are looking to NOAA to take that bold step and look at the readily available commercial outsourcing opportunities ... in space," Kirchner said.
Currently, the NOAA budget is largely focused on its large flagship satellites like the Joint Polar Orbiting Satellite System (JPSS) and the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite R-Series (GOES-R) (E&ENews PM, March 13).
The data from those satellites are key to weather prediction, climate modeling and storm tracking, but both satellite programs are at risk of a gap in coverage since they have fallen behind schedule, according to Government Accountability Office reports.
And while "Battlestar Galactica" satellites like JPSS and GOES are important, Kirchner said, the agency should also have an evolutionary perspective of looking at new and cheaper ways to get key weather forecasting data.
"If we believe the data is indispensable and we can get it for a dramatically lower price, than why wouldn't we at least be looking at it?" Kirchner asked.
Getting 'bang for our buck' on weather data?
A bill just passed in the House of Representatives encourages the agency to do that.
"As the country faces serious satellite data gaps, [this bill] would encourage NOAA to systematically conduct cost-benefit assessments to ensure that we are getting the most bang for our buck in acquiring and procuring a mix of critical space-, air- and ground-based observational data," Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah), former chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Environment, said in a May 2013 hearing on the bill.
In its current form, the bill clarifies that the agency can purchase weather data from outside companies. It also includes language directing NOAA to conduct what is basically a cost-benefit analysis of new sources of weather data -- this is referred to as an observing system simulation experiment.
The bill also prioritizes such analyses on two specific types of weather data -- one is the GPS radio occultation that Kirchner's company runs. The other is called geostationary hyperspectral sounder global constellations.
David Crain, the CEO of GeoMetWatch, a company planning to launch a constellation of hyperspectral sounders, has also testified in Congress on the advantages that data from those satellites could offer the National Weather Service.
The House bill also directs the Commerce secretary to develop a strategy on acquiring commercial weather data, analyzing the cost-effectiveness of doing so and creating a plan to purchase such data, if appropriate.
Lasley, who helped organize the panel at the AMS Washington Forum, said he and others at the meeting were encouraged by the bill and the prospect of improving the integration of private-sector data with NOAA and the Weather Service.
"[There's been] a lot of buzz in the breaks and hallways," Lasley said.
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