Letter | Private Sector Can Boost U.S. Weather Forecasting

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A response to my article “Winds of Change for Weather Data” [Commentary, Oct. 20, page 19] indicates a misunderstanding of the path forward for weather satellites [“Please Don’t Drink the Bug Juice,” Commentary, Nov. 17, page 19].

I want to clarify that we believe that independent of the spending schedule for the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) and Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES)-R there exists an opportunity to leverage the private sector.

The private sector is very adept at improving and augmenting government capabilities. This has led to better space applications at lower costs plus uses by the general public never previously imagined. The economy and the human condition have benefited greatly from innovation and competition.

Maintaining the government monopoly on weather satellite data precludes similar advancements in weather prediction. Following the model of the Department of Defense, NASA or the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration could leverage commercial capabilities for weather data and free up resources to improve NOAA’s programs of record.

Particular types of commercial data, specifically hyperspectral imaging and GPS radio occultation, have applications that can improve forecasts. The National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service (NESDIS), responsible for owning and operating NOAA satellites, ranks GPS radio occultation as a top five requirement for the agency’s next decade. This is an area where the private sector can augment government satellite capabilities, freeing resources to improve other components of the weather programs.

The National Weather Service verified in April that the United States lags behind Europe, the United Kingdom and Canada in terms of prediction accuracy. In 2012, U.S. models predicted Hurricane Sandy to stay offshore; however, the European model predicted days in advance that Sandy would make landfall in the Northeastern United States. The ability to accurately predict hurricane landfall enables preparedness and prevents false-alarm evacuations, which cost our nation billions of dollars.

Congress is not advocating for the cancellation of GOES-R, JPSS-1 or JPSS-2. Certainly, I am not. In fact, using commercial GPS radio occultation data will enhance the forecasting made possible by JPSS and GOES-R.

We need to be preparing even today, however, to take advantage of private-sector capabilities. By reducing some of the future responsibilities of ownership and operation, a portion of NOAA’s budget currently tied up in satellites can be better targeted to the critical research that only NOAA can do.

Participation by commercial providers serves as a source of redundancy in the event of mishaps or scheduling slips. Private enterprise will also ensure that NOAA obtains the best data possible by culling it from multiple competing sources.

Independent reviews have projected an 18-month data gap between the Suomi NPP satellite and JPSS-1, potentially lengthened by any launch delays or anomalies. While we forge ahead with JPSS, we need a strategy to mitigate this impending gap.

The commercial sector can provide redundancy, support, augmentation and improvement, enhancing NOAA capability and optimizing scarce resources. Satellite imagery was once a government monopoly, but empowering the private sector resulted in improved imagery, lower costs and better service to the warfighter. Satellite communications followed a similar path. Leveraging private-sector innovation will provide NOAA with the best tools for its tremendous, life-saving work.

Saving lives and property was my goal when I introduced the Weather Forecasting Improvement Act, which passed the House without opposition. Focusing NOAA’s budget on more targeted research and encouraging greater utilization of the private sector will make a significant impact. If Congress passes this legislation next year, and if NOAA signals to the private sector that some collection requirements will be open to a competitive commercial industry, the United States can return to being a leader in weather forecasting.

 

U.S. Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.)

Washington