Weather forecasting is getting worse because of the government shutdown, from Durango to Dallas, Duluth to Detroit. You might have noticed that already, although the connection has been purposefully obscured.
Much of the important work of the federal government is done inside the Cabinet-level agencies, some of which have now been shut for a record time owing to the standoff between President Donald Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Take the Department of Commerce, which has been shuttered. It does not sound very sexy, perhaps more like a place where tycoons smoke cigars in a drawing room, but looks are misleading.
Inside Commerce is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and inside that is the National Weather Service.
What does the Weather Service actually do? There are two answers.
The first is, just what you think. The second is, more than you may realize – and this is worth discussing now as the shutdown means that Weather Service forecasting models are not being maintained, launched or improved, and so your forecast will be worse.
But ... people can get weather and forecasts from AccuWeather or the Weather Channel or Weather Underground or weather.com or this other great new app, right?
But they all get their weather data from the Weather Service.
It will probably never make sense for the private sector to invest the billions of dollars government does to collect that data – the Weather Service has, among other impressive assets, 159 high-resolution Doppler radar sites in the U.S. – but it makes a lot of sense to take what the government freely provides, tweak it and sell ads on your weather website or app.
The good news is that, overall, the accuracy of the government’s data and of forecasting has been improving dramatically. We are getting what we pay for there.
In late 2017, the Trump administration finally named a new head of NOAA, Barry Lee Meyers.
Meyers was the CEO of AccuWeather, a for-profit, privately-held weather company that, of course, relies on the data the Weather Service collects and provides without charge.
By the 1990s, Meyers was arguing that the Weather Service should be “entirely forbidden from delivering any weather-related knowledge to any American who might otherwise wind up a paying customer of AccuWeather,” unless life or property were at stake, the journalist Michael Lewis writes.
“The government should get out of the forecasting business,” Meyers said.
He succeeded in blocking the Weather Service from developing its own weather app. That is to say, Meyers is one of the reasons you may not know what the Weather Service really does.
The Senate failed to confirm Meyers in its last session. Just several weeks ago, he stepped down from his AccuWeather post and sold all his interest in the company, it announced. It is possible he has sold it to family members, several of whom are on its board; we do not know.
We do know the Senate will attempt to confirm Meyers in this session and sooner or later the shutdown will end, and the Weather Service will try to rebuild its models and make all forecasts better again – and if Meyers has anything to do with it, you still will not hear about the indispensable role of government in telling you not just that there is a hurricane on the way but also whether it will snow this afternoon and how much.