Weather Data Privatization Poses Conflicts in a Changing Meteorology Landscape

February 19, 2020

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President Trump, in a White House video, with a map of Hurricane Dorian’s path showing apparent alterations that spurred the so-called Sharpiegate scandal. Image: Click to enlarge.

Backgrounder: Weather Data Privatization Poses Conflicts in a Changing Meteorology Landscape

By Joseph A. Davis

It was news in November 2019 when Barry Myers, President Donald Trump’s nominee to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, withdrew his name (may require subscription) from the running. His nomination, beset by controversy, had been hanging for more than two years. 

Of the many issues dogging him, privatization of weather data was a big one.

Weather forecasting is a vast enterprise — and also a big, lucrative business. And the argument over weather data privatization has been going on for years

For instance, in 1983 during the Reagan administration, John Byrne, who headed NOAA, proposed selling U.S. weather satellites off to the private sector. It didn’t happen. 

Should private businesses profit from data gathered via taxpayer-funded satellites? Some private companies think so, and use what others see as a distorted and misleading free-market mantra to justify it.

The weather privatization movement has been tightly linked with some bastions of conservative free-market ideology (like the Competitive Enterprise Institute). But it has also been rooted in the fertile soil of companies who stand to make money off of the deal. Private weather companies are a thing.


In the process of selling weather info to local media,

the legal departments of weather companies put

news outlets in various straitjackets.


Let’s be clear: The news business is one of those enterprises that makes money from predicting the weather. Weather is the one story that is almost always on the front page of every daily newspaper, and takes up a major chunk of local TV news broadcasts. It affects people’s lives and it’s what people talk about.

Yet few local news outlets can afford their own full-time, academically trained meteorologist. They either lean on the National Weather Service or buy forecasts from private companies like AccuWeather, which says it provides customized weather for some 700 newspapers (of the 1,200-odd in the United States).

In the process of selling weather info to local media, the legal departments of weather companies put news outlets in various straitjackets — turning weather back into intellectual property, enforcing market power or protecting their own liability.

Businesses, people can live or die on weather info

Does it matter? It’s true that weather is partly just about whether you should grab an umbrella on the way to work. But people’s lives can literally depend on weather warnings: wildfires, tornadoes, hurricanes, storm surges, floods, blizzards, you name it. 

Also, many businesses also depend crucially on weather (and climate) information: farmers, fisherfolk, truckers, shippers, sports teams, hardware stores, amusement parks, insurance companies, electric utilities, airlines … the list goes on.

It also matters because citizens pay for it already. The raw observational data that weather forecasts are built on comes from a huge and complex array of satellites, instruments and observation posts run by various federal agencies, well beyond NOAA and NASA. 

And the predictive interpretations of this data likewise come from an array of federal agencies — notably the National Weather Service — most of which fall under the organizational umbrella of NOAA. The NWS has a wide network of local offices whose job is to develop local predictions and warnings. 

So, U.S. taxpayers are already paying for all of this and U.S. residents can already access all of this information for free.


‘Sharpiegate’ demoralized professionals, undermined public trust

Myers’ nomination to head NOAA had a number of problems (may require subscription). 

For example, he was a non-scientist and NOAA heads had traditionally had some scientific qualifications, since the agency does research in many scientific disciplines. In addition, his stake in AccuWeather presented a strong, clear conflict of interest (may require subscription).

Myers in 2017. Photo: U.S. Senate/Wikimedia Commons. 

But the main issue around the nomination was summed up in a headline from Bloomberg: “Trump’s Pick to Lead Weather Agency Spent 30 Years Fighting It” (may require subscription). The choice seemed to fit a pattern of the Trump administration picking agency leaders inclined to undermine the mission of their agencies.

One reason why the integrity of NOAA leadership is so crucial became apparent when Hurricane Dorian threatened the Atlantic coast in early September 2019. Figuring out where this powerful storm was headed was critical to protecting the lives and property of millions in the wide area it menaced. 

As professionals at the National Hurricane Center (part of the NWS) were doing their best to save lives, President Trump provoked “Sharpiegate.” He apparently used a pen to forge a hurricane map to bolster a lie he had told earlier about Dorian going toward Alabama (it didn’t). 

Instead of backing the professional forecasters, who were right, the political appointees at the top of NOAA and its host agency, the Commerce Department, covered for Trump. The end result was erosion of the morale and integrity of professional experts, along with the undermining of public confidence in life-saving warnings.


Private weather industry expands

Undermining public confidence in the NWS, of course, was a bonanza for the private weather industry, whose profits such a result bolsters.

Over the last several decades, the private weather industry has grown bigger, more specialized and more complex. 

It is no longer just AccuWeather repackaging NWS forecasts and selling them to newspapers. There are other large players: the Weather Channel, Weather Underground, Weather Company, Earth Networks, etc. 

There are a great many more, and NOAA, in the spirit of public service, publishes lists of them.

It is worth acknowledging all the special information needs that various risk-prone industries (farming, fishing, transportation, etc.) have — needs which for-profit weather companies have met more successfully than NOAA and NWS have been able to, by repurposing and repackaging government data. 

And they have made money (some $7 billion in market capitalization) without restricting the data and services NOAA can offer the public.


Making sense of vast data is new weather frontier

A number of recent trends in the evolution of climate and weather data services have raised issues well beyond the familiar melodrama of corruption and conflict of interest. 

For one thing, private companies are no longer quite as dependent on NOAA data as they once were. 

Yes, NOAA still has the biggest and baddest fleet of observation satellites and instruments. But today, there are private satellites (which can fly ultra-specialized observation missions) and even private launch vehicles. 

Furthermore, the old idea of weather being something you’d find only in the “ear” tab on the top corner of a newspaper front page (or an inside weather map) is dated. 

Today, people get their weather on screens. And that no longer means merely the weather reader on a local TV over-air broadcast station. There are numerous cable channels and streaming services, and a great many people get most of their weather on personal devices like smartphones.     


Today’s frontier is not just the data

or the technology for gathering the data.

It is also the technology for making

sense of and disseminating the data.


Today’s frontier is not just the data or the technology for gathering the data. It is also the technology for making sense of and disseminating the data. 

NOAA’s weather models today are sometimes not as skillful as those of Europe’s weather agencies and NOAA is trying to upgrade the skill of its weather models now. Meanwhile, IBM, which is applying artificial intelligence to improve weather models, is buying up dissemination platforms.    


Public-private ‘partnership?’ 

While the Myers’ NOAA nomination had used up its nine lives by the time he withdrew, it was hardly because Trump had seen the error of the nomination. 

Allegations of sexual harassment at AccuWeather had only deepened the ethics problems. But the health problems that were Myers’ stated reason for withdrawing (cancer surgery and chemotherapy) (may require subscription) were apparently genuine. 

Still unresolved in the end was the issue of whether the private weather industry (or a major player in it) could properly be allowed to oversee, and potentially loot, the data-rich NWS it made profits from.

Next up on the NOAA escalator is Neil Jacobs, who is essentially acting as head of NOAA right now. He at least has a doctorate in atmospheric science. But he also has deep roots in the private weather industry — he was a top scientist at Panasonic Avionics Corp. 

Trump has now formally nominated Jacobs to head the agency. Before he is confirmed, senators will probably try to clarify his role in Sharpiegate, which could be illuminated by more than one ongoing investigation. Will that happen before the election? 

In any case, the administration has often been satisfied with acting agency heads and nominations that do not get confirmed. Jacobs today talks increasingly of “partnership” between NOAA and the private weather industry. 

As yet it is far from certain whether that means a new collaborative approach or merely a rebranding of the “privatization” of earlier years.

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet and Reporter's Toolbox columns. Davis also directs SEJ's WatchDog Project and writes WatchDog Tipsheet, and compiles SEJ's daily news headlines, EJToday.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 5, No. 7. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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