Letter | The Value of Meteorological Cooperation

by and

In his op-ed published on Dec. 1 [“China’s Threat to America’s Weather Systems,” Commentary, page 19], Dean Cheng suggests that a recent cyberintrusion on public websites operated by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is evidence of Chinese intent to disrupt, or potentially even destroy, America’s weather forecasting and meteorological capability. Destructive cyberattacks, particularly those against critical infrastructure, are a significant national and international security concern. However, as is the case with many cyberincidents, the news stories generated by the NOAA intrusion contained an abundance of unsupported speculation. Moreover, abandoning international cooperation and data sharing efforts in favor of unilateral measures is impractical given the reality of today’s globalized world and budget challenges, and unwise given the advantages offered by increased international collaboration on Earth observations.

The recent incident involving NOAA’s computer systems is only the latest in a long string of publicly reported intrusions and outright attacks on computer networks and systems globally. In the NOAA case, Mr. Cheng’s op-ed and many other reports on the incident suggest the intrusion disrupted the delivery of U.S. weather data to end users, and that such disruption was the intent of the intrusion. Yet the publicly reported facts show that it was actually NOAA’s response to the incident that disrupted access to the data. Furthermore, the intrusion affected four public NOAA websites — there are no publicly available data to suggest that the intruders breached more important internal systems, and zero evidence to support the claims by some that NOAA satellite command and control systems were impacted.

Coverage gaps and other vulnerabilities of the U.S. national weather system remain issues of concern, but efforts to strengthen national infrastructure should also recognize the enduring benefits the United States derives from the longstanding international cooperation in weather data and observations. The early recognition of the global nature of weather, climate and hydrology led to the formation of the International Meteorological Organization in 1873, which became the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in 1950. According to the WMO, of which both China and the United States have been member states for over 60 years, modern meteorology depends upon near-instantaneous exchange of weather information across the entire globe. China has also shown significant commitment to international cooperation on meteorology, including soliciting input from the world’s meteorological satellite community on which orbits new Chinese meteorological satellites should be launched into to best maximize the global benefit.

International cooperation in Earth observations — not just in weather — helps improve the U.S. ability to meet evolving research and operational needs. As recognized in the recently released White House National Plan For Civil Earth Observations, international cooperation not only enables the United States to “leverage foreign data and scientific expertise” but also helps target investments by minimizing “unnecessary redundancy” in observations. Furthermore, U.S. leadership in international cooperation and data sharing are firmly rooted in U.S. policy and practice, and have been recognized as priorities by Republican and Democratic administrations alike. Both the 2006 and 2010 National Space Policies maintain U.S. commitment to facilitating full and open access to government environmental data, a model that is being replicated all over the world with resulting benefits to the United States. Increased partnerships and cooperation with like-minded countries, international organizations and commercial firms are also key elements of the Department of Defense’s efforts to bolster resilience of U.S. national security space capabilities.

Addressing the vulnerabilities highlighted by recent high-profile cyberintrusions and the much-reported possibility of a coverage gap with U.S. meteorological satellites are important issues that need to be dealt with. However, turning back decades of progress in international cooperation in meteorology that have directly benefited the United States is not the right answer. Such an approach is inconsistent with the current geopolitical and economic realities, and puts at risk not only continued U.S. leadership on cooperative space and meteorological efforts but also future benefits the United States would derive from such efforts.

Brian Weeden and Laura Delgado López

The writers are the technical adviser and a project manager for the Secure World Foundation.