COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado — The tornado seemingly came out of nowhere on March 23, plowing into a trailer park in Sand Springs, just west of Tulsa.
“Within five minutes it was dark and the sirens were going off and you couldn’t hear yourself think,” Brandy Richards, a Sand Springs resident, told CNN. “And you just grab the kids and we ran.”
One man died in the storm. And while the number of tornadoes is actually down this year, one death is still too many for Rep. Jim Bridenstine, the Republican congressman for Oklahoma’s 1st District, which includes most of Tulsa.
“I have constituents get killed in tornadoes every year,” he lamented in an interview with The Daily Beast at a space-industry conference here in Colorado Springs.
Now Bridenstine, who is dismissive of the danger posed by global climate change, has a plan to give his constituents more warning before a potentially lethal storm—alerting people in a storm’s path up to two hours in advance, he claimed. “The technology exists,” the two-term congressman said.
The problem is, Bridenstine’s plan—which he has embedded inside a far-reaching new federal bill—could undermine America’s existing public weather-forecasting system. To a great extent, it would hand over responsibility for predicting storms to for-profit weather companies.
The congressman’s plan could have the effect of beginning to dismantle the weather system that the U.S. government has painstakingly built over a century or more. And it could also do global damage—by compelling the United States to drop out of a UN data-sharing program that helps countries combine their weather-prediction efforts.
After all, as the UN’s World Meteorological Organization notes on its website, “weather, climate, and the water cycle know no national boundaries.”
Bridenstine has just released his proposed American Space Renaissance Act, which the congressman described as a “repository of the best ideas” for reforming America’s space agencies, including NASA, the military, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency, or NOAA, which controls the National Weather Service.
The bill would require NOAA to buy weather data from America’s $1.8 billion-a-year private weather-forecasting industry, which includes AccuWeather and Weather Services International, a division of The Weather Channel.
“We’re trying to move NOAA in a direction where it will be one of many customers of commercial data-providers,” Bridenstine said. Not coincidentally, the University of Oklahoma—which has a campus in Tulsa—hosts a large concentraion of weather researchers and private weather firms.
Bridenstine argued that corporate weather services are more technologically advanced than NOAA is—and therefore can be more accurate. The government, Bridenstine claimed, is stuck in an old-fashioned mind-set when it comes to space-based weather forecasting. “NOAA builds an $11 billion satellite and puts it on top of a giant rocket.” He grimaced. “If it blows up… “
Private companies, by contrast, are moving toward smaller, cheaper satellites—and launching more of them so that no one satellite bears too much of the burden of detecting storms down below. Constellations of many, small sats are easier to upgrade and replace, allowing a weather company to stay on the cutting edge of sensor technology.
At least, that’s the dichotomy Bridenstine described. The truth is, NOAA has actually been a pioneer in the field of small satellites. The agency began making use of weather data from small sats as far back as 2005.
But there’s a catch. Those early “microsatellites” were actually Taiwanese. NOAA’s access to the sats was a happy byproduct of its strong international alliances, which Bridenstine’s bill would undermine.
And contrary to Bridenstine’s implication, NOAA already makes use of commercial weather data—albeit with some hard limits that serve to protect “the data-sharing commitments upon which we depend for global data,” according to the agency.
After all, as Bridenstine himself explained, NOAA cannot freely share private weather data with other countries without also undermining the very for-profit weather industry that produces the data. If foreign clients can get the U.S. weather firms’ products for free, then why would they ever pay for them?
The end result? NOAA “could destroy the market,” Bridenstine said. “No one will produce that data.”
The government clearly appreciates that. And that’s why NOAA walks a fine line between competing interests—buying some private data but not so much private data that the agency might jeopardize the private firms’ intellectual property when it shares U.S. government forecasts with foreign countries.
Even with all these complications, NOAA is trying to make even greater use of commercial weather services. In January the agency released a new weather-data strategy that, among other things “establish[es] demonstration projects to test and evaluate new potential data sources and provide an avenue to operational commercial data buys.”
Now to be fair, Bridenstine wasn’t entirely wrong about one thing. Compared to NOAA, private weather forecasters can be more accurate or farther-looking in certain, very-specific circumstances. That’s because the for-profit weather firms can focus intensive effort on small areas and, sometimes, produce better local forecasts than NOAA can—provided you’re willing to pay.
But there’s a dirty secret behind the apparently superior private local forecasts. As long as they’re more right than NOAA most of the time, for-profit forecasters are apparently comfortable occasionally being very wrong. The kind of wrong that can get people killed.
Imagine some for-profit forecaster insisting, with good data, that a particular hurricane or tropical storm is unlikely to make landfall, thus implying that evacuations are unnecessary. And then the storm goes rogue. And the private forecaster’s assessment proves improbably, deadly wrong.
NOAA, by contrast, is risk-averse in its weather forecasting because the agency is “motivated mainly by public safety,” according to Weatherwise, a weather-industry trade publication. The agency is “less likely to deal in probabilities and likelihoods when forecasting a potentially dangerous situation.” If there’s a small chance of a major storm forming, NOAA’s going to emphasize the danger and urge you to get the Hell out of the storm’s path.
Private firms arguably do not indulge in the same broad concern for taxpayers’ welfare.
Bridenstine misses this larger point when he obsesses over the tantalizing prospect of a private company anticipating a tornado farther in advance than NOAA can reliably do. In fact, if history is any guide, NOAA is actually more likely to warn more people of a wider range of dangerous weather events than any private company is.
NOAA walks a fine line between the private weather industry and the global public good in order to ensure that all Americans—not only those who can afford to pay—have access to the best possible worldwide weather forecasts
Bridenstine’s proposed law would shove the agency right over that line and toward de facto privatization. And he had no answer to the question of preserving global data-sharing while also compelling NOAA to rely on commercial forecasters. “It’s a difficult challenge,” he said, and left it at that.