Op-ed | Time for Action on Commercial Weather Data

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Commercial space-based weather satellites, owned and operated by private companies, can augment the federal government’s weather data, be assimilated into our numerical weather models, and substantially improve our ability to predict severe weather. This is my firm conviction. I represent the state of Oklahoma. My constituents year after year find their lives threatened by severe storms and tornadoes. They deserve to have the best possible weather data available to protect their lives and property. The House Science environment subcommittee that I chair has vigorously encouraged the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to explore these options.

In September, NOAA released a draft Commercial Space Policy, thanks in no small part to the efforts of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. While I have some concerns about the policy as drafted, I believe this is a positive step toward NOAA procuring the services of commercial weather data satellite firms and integrating them into the weather enterprise.

Despite my optimism, NOAA continues to slow the process by citing a blanket interpretation of our data-sharing obligations under World Meteorological Organization Resolution 40 (WMO-40). In testimony before the environment subcommittee and reiterated in its draft Commercial Space Policy, NOAA insists that it must give away any and all data, regardless of the source or type of data.

Our international obligations are actually much more nuanced than this interpretation. WMO-40 was developed 20 years ago, an eternity in technological terms and before commercial space was a practical concept like it is today. I have called on NOAA to consider new approaches [“NOAA’s Commercial Data Policy,” Commentary, June 22, page 19], but NOAA remains committed to its interpretation.

The landscape for weather satellites has changed, and NOAA needs to be open to new ideas for handling environmental data, while ensuring we meet our international obligations and provide adequate data access for academia and the downstream weather enterprise.

Instead of blanket policies and complete dismissal of new and innovative data sources, NOAA should work with the emerging commercial sector to incorporate data that protect lives and property, foster a new industry, reduce government costs and increase our ability to forecast severe weather.

To this end, there are multiple methods NOAA can use to incorporate commercial space-based data into numerical weather systems while still meeting our obligations under WMO-40, as NOAA does with various other types of data:

  • Time delay: Much like NOAA’s use of aviation-based weather data, this method suggests that private space-based data be restricted to clients (such as NOAA) on a time delay of 24-48 hours to be used in the clients’ numerical weather models and ensembles. This would allow private companies to sell data to NOAA without the risk of NOAA giving the data away free of charge.
  • Resolution restrictions: A resolution restriction would allow a client (such as NOAA) to purchase higher-resolution data. Data for global initial conditions could be shared with the world while the higher-resolution data would not be released free of charge. This method would block the client’s ability to share precise data measurements while still providing for the distribution of certain portions of data.
  • Data tiers: Data that go beyond NOAA’s requirements in terms of type, amount, frequency and resolution could be subject to a tiered subscription model, incorporated into a client’s numerical weather models with release subject to agreements between the client and the sellers of the data.

An open architecture for space-based weather data would provide more and better data, foster competition and distribute taxpayer costs to the private sector.

As we look to incorporate commercial space-based assets, any genuine and meaningful conversations need to result in action. Many of my colleagues feel the same way: There is in fact bipartisan acknowledgment that this hurdle must be overcome. The ranking member of the subcommittee, Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.), has expressed a strong desire to ensure that academia and researchers have access to the best data, and I absolutely share this commitment. Another Science Committee colleague, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.), has proposed that these issues be dealt with through contracting processes, and I think this concept has promise. I appreciate the good faith with which my colleagues have approached this issue.

NOAA’s mission is public safety, and to meet this national priority it will need to incorporate commercial space-based assets. H.R. 1561, the Lucas-Bridenstine Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act, includes a pilot program to competitively select providers of space-based data to test against NOAA’s proprietary data. H.R. 1561 passed the House on May 19. I am confident we can deliver a final bill to the president’s desk by year’s end.

Private-sector innovation will surpass government capabilities. We have seen this happen with the Department of Defense and with NASA. NOAA will need to integrate commercial sources into its models to stay ahead of the international community’s growing weather capabilities.

The United States has already fallen behind Europe and other countries in regard to weather forecasting. We should not turn our backs on a commercial sector that has the power to help us regain our global leadership in weather forecasting and prediction essential to saving lives and property.

I welcome feedback from throughout the American weather enterprise. I hope this commentary leads to a fruitful discussion on how NOAA treats space-based weather data. This is critical to ensure NOAA has access to the most and best data necessary to protect my constituents and Americans all across the country.

U.S. Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) is chairman of the House Science environment subcommittee.