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Weather Forecasts Are Getting Better and Better—but They're Under Threat

Accurate weather forecasts can provide strong economic benefits to Americans and save lives—but only if weather data remains accessible.
A view of the Houston skyline after heavy rains broke during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey on August 29th, 2017.

A view of the Houston skyline after heavy rains broke during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey on August 29th, 2017.

Weather forecasters get a bad rap, and one that anyone who has ever over-prepared for a blizzard that never arrived might think is well-deserved. But according to a new report in Science Perspectives, forecasting has actually improved dramatically over the last several decades. Five-day forecasts today, for example, are as accurate as one-day forecasts were back in 1980.

Satellite data, better computers, and an improved understanding of the Earth's atmosphere and the processes that govern its behavior have all led to massive improvements—and not just in predictions of day-to-day weather, but also for hazardous conditions. Predictions of hurricanes, blizzards, floods, and tornadoes, to name just a few, are all more accurate than ever. Forecasts of hurricane paths from three days out are now more accurate than one-day predictions were 40 years ago, according to the report, giving people critical time to prepare or evacuate.

The benefits of these improvements far outweigh the costs of the investments that brought them about. The authors cite a 2009 study, for example, showing that public and private expenditures in forecasting total roughly $5.1 billion each year, while the benefits to United States households total $31.5 billion.

And weather data is more accessible than ever. "Only a few decades ago, one had to wait for the morning newspaper or the evening news to get the latest forecast, and warnings of imminent arrival of severe weather were delivered mostly by flags, sirens, and police bullhorns," the report authors write. "Today, detailed, geographically targeted weather information is available at the touch of a finger on a smartphone."

Access to such warnings is key, given that accurate and timely forecasts can save lives, but the accessibility of weather data is currently under threat. AccuWeather, a private weather forecasting company that uses data collected by the National Weather Service to inform its predictions, has lobbied for legislation that would hinder the federal agency's ability to release information to the public, so that private companies could compete using data collected by government-owned satellites. In other words, the company wants to monetize data collected by agencies and technologies paid for with tax dollars, effectively forcing Americans to pay for their weather data twice.

In 2017, President Donald Trump tapped Barry Myers, then the chief executive officer of AccuWeather, to run the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, putting the businessman in charge of the Weather Service in competition with his family business—Myer's brother, Joel, currently helms AccuWeather.