An enterprising move

Public, private, academic sectors gather around the weather table


Rob Handel (National Weather Service, Miami) tracks Hurricane Katrina using Doppler radar as the system makes landfall between Miami and Fort Lauderdale on 25 August. Forecasters in the public and private sectors raced to stay ahead of the eight tropical storms and hurricanes that reached U.S. shores from June through October. (Photo by Bob Henson, UCAR.)

by Bob Henson

"I don't know who came up with the word, but it seemed to stick," says George Frederick. The word is "enterprise," and it's fast becoming the term of choice to describe a diverse set of people who engage in predicting and studying the nation's weather and climate, be it in private firms, the federal government, the military, or academia.

Settling on a label may be a modest achievement, but in this case the term has resonance. For an often fractious set of communities, the agreement to see each other as part of a single enterprise has helped launch the kind of cross-sector dialogue many have been craving for years.

Frederick, recently retired from Vaisala, is busy cultivating that dialogue. He became chair of the American Meteorological Society's new Commission on the Weather and Climate Enterprise last January. Since then he's helped chair a community meeting in Boulder and a related session at the National Weather Association's annual meeting in October. Frederick also keeps track of three enterprise-related AMS boards, two of them brand new and all under his commission's umbrella.

Frederick says he enjoys the work, despite its time-consuming nature. "We seem to get all the burning issues of the day, all the hot topics," he says.

Followers of the forecasting world know about the long-simmering tensions between the public and private sectors, largely over who has the rights to convey various types of forecasts to the public. That debate hasn't cooled off (though the parties involved do have new avenues for discussing their longstanding issues). But the new enterprise dialogue goes much further. Recent meetings and related writings point to many ways in which the collective strength of the weather enterprise could be bolstered.

Opportunities missed?

In a conference room atop the University of Colorado's Folsom Stadium, more than 100 leaders from the U.S. weather and climate world gathered in the last week of July for a three-day forum noteworthy for its candor. The tone was set in the first talk, by Clifford Mass (University of Washington), who co-chaired the meeting with Frederick. Mass pointed to a lack of coordination and community involvement in the research-to-operations pipeline.

"Many of us believe the weather enterprise is not living up to its enormous potential because we're not talking to each other in a coordinated fashion," said Mass. He cited a list of impressive achievements—greater model accuracy, more rapid and widespread dissemination of weather data—but called these accomplishments "a mere shadow of what we're capable of." Mass's viewpoint is summarized in "The Uncoordinated Giant," a paper soon to appear in the Bulletin of the AMS (see excerpts below).

Mass noted that model development is blossoming at universities and private firms as well as at NOAA, but he claimed this growth has occurred without the focused work on model parameterization, data assimilation, and other issues needed to advance the models even further. Borrowing an analogy from a British colleague, Mass likened the U.S. modeling scene to an overwatered garden, with lots of shoots competing for attention, while the more orchestrated European approach is akin to a desert with a few beautiful, well-tended blooms.

Indeed, several speakers pointed out that forecasts from the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) now routinely outshine forecasts from major U.S. models for surface and upper-level parameters across North America. In a keynote speech, Michel Béland, director general of atmospheric and climate science for Environment Canada, suggested changes in NOAA management structure and more funding to seed operationally oriented research at universities, although he believes academics shouldn't issue forecasts. Ironically, he noted, the ECMWF assimilates far more of the data from U.S. satellites into its forecast process than does NOAA.

In the meeting's other keynote address, UCAR president Richard Anthes called for the weather enterprise to champion the Earth Information System (see "On the Web") and for agencies to follow up on recommendations in Fair Weather, the 2003 National Academies report on public-private interactions. He praised the growth of community models, including the Weather Research and Forecasting model (WRF): "You may say there's a few too many [community models], but I think it's a great concept." However, he added, more computing power to run the models is essential. Anthes observed that operational and research centers in Japan, China, and Europe boast far higher ratings in the Top 500 list of the world's most powerful computers (as of mid-2005) than do NOAA, NCAR, or the meteorology department of any U.S. university.

Later in the meeting, the familiar public-private tensions arose. They were inflamed late in 2004 by a new policy from NOAA in response to a recommendation in Fair Weather. The new policy reversed a 1991 position in which the National Weather Service would not offer products that duplicated those offered by private firms. The idea behind the 2004 policy was that divisions between the private and public sectors had become so fluid in the context of quickly evolving technologies that strict boundaries were no longer workable. "The gray areas change," noted Edward Johnson (NWS Office of Strategic Planning and Policy).

Taken to its logical extreme, the 1991 ban would have kept the NWS from issuing the daily forecasts it's released for more than 130 years. But some private firms believe the new policy goes too far in the other direction—for instance, allowing the NWS to launch a free cell phone forecast service that competes with those already in the marketplace.

The private sector took its concerns to Congress via the Commercial Weather Services Association. With CWSA support, Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) introduced a bill early this year that would require the NWS to provide all users with "simultaneous and equal access" to all data, a measure that addresses one-on-one media interviews and other NWS activities that could favor one user over another. The bill would also prohibit the agency from issuing any forecasts, outside of life- or property-threatening situations, as long as private sector companies were willing and able to produce such forecasts themselves. The stakes are high, according to a CWSA statement issued in June: "The public safety of the nation is at risk by a government weather service that has destroyed the balance between itself and the private sector."

The Santorum bill hasn't engendered universal support among private firms. "It's important that there's clarity about what we the people want from our weather service," said Ray Ban (The Weather Channel) at the July meeting. Ban stopped short of specifically endorsing the Santorum bill. Maria Pirone (Atmospheric and Environmental Research) also spoke out against "strict guidelines" and encouraged the building of mutual trust between the public and private sectors as the enterprise deals with new technology.

Some of the concerns voiced by private firms at the Boulder meeting may be allayed by a reworking of the 2004 NOAA policy. Announced on 4 August and now in review after a public comment period, the proposed clarification states that "NOAA will take advantage of existing capabilities and services of commercial and academic sectors to avoid duplication and competition in areas not related to the NOAA mission."

Bringing the dialogue online

The above debate, and many related ones, goes into cyberspace with the launch of an AMS forum by the Commission on the Weather and Climate Enterprise (see "On the Web"). Launched this fall, the forum is one outgrowth of the new AMS Board on Enterprise Communication. Initial postings include the CWSA letter noted above and a recent Wall Street Journal article on the weather enterprise that spotlights three private firms (WeatherData, WeatherBug, and Meteorlogix).

"We're hoping that many folks get involved in the forum and provide feedback, discussions, and new ideas for the weather and climate community," says board chair Matthew Parker (Savannah River National Laboratory). "We need some good discussions and some concrete results."

Also part of the AMS commission is the new Board on Enterprise Planning, headed by Terry Tarbell (RS Information Systems), and the Board on Enterprise Economic Development, chaired by NCAR's William Mahoney. With almost a year under its belt, the latter board is at work planning the 2006 Corporate Forum, slated for 6–7 March in Washington, D.C., as well as the AMS User Forum, scheduled for 30 January at the society's annual meeting in Atlanta.

With these and other sessions already on tap, more dialogue about the nature and future of the weather enterprise seems a certainty. As the July meeting in Boulder drew to a close, Steve Root (WeatherBank) summed up the newly cooperative spirit: "The only barriers we should be fighting are the barriers installed by Mother Nature."

The view from one academic

Clifford Mass.

To help get dialogue going at this summer's Boulder meeting on the future of the U.S. weather prediction enterprise, Clifford Mass (University of Washington) penned a paper entitled "The Uncoordinated Giant: Why U.S. Weather Research and Prediction Are Not Achieving Their Potential." Soon to appear in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, the paper offers a detailed look at how the weather enterprise could strengthen its approach to modeling, communication, and other aspects of research and operations. Below are a few excerpts from Mass's paper (see "On the Web").

There is a growing community sentiment that weather prediction research and operations in the U.S. have significant problems and that progress in diagnosing and predicting the weather is far less than our discipline's potential. . . .

The tensions among sectors of the weather prediction enterprise, and most acutely between the private sector and the NWS, are substantially weakening the ability of the enterprise to move forward. Certainly, the fact that private sector firms feel their only remedy to deal with perceived NWS intrusions is through legislation is a warning sign that something is very wrong. . . .

A critical deficiency in the current weather prediction establishment is a lack of coordination and planning capability. No one group is asking the critical questions: What are the deficiencies of the current modeling and data assimilation systems and how will the resources, both financial and personnel, be found to deal with them? How can duplication of effort be reduced? . . .

In contrast to the agency-centric or "small-circle" decision-making that is the general rule today, another model is possible, one that is more open and inclusive. Major weather-related activities that affect a large proportion of the community (such as national numerical model development or an entity like the USWRP [U.S. Weather Research Program]) should be directed by a representative collection of members of the weather community and major users. One would expect that such a group would possess the information and scope to make better decisions and could avoid some of the serious problems noted above. . . . This new paradigm of community integration will prove uncomfortable to those accustomed to sole control of resources and manpower, but it is [a] critical step if we wish to serve our users and our discipline effectively. . .

The U.S. weather enterprise has a great deal going for it: the world's largest meteorological academic community, leadership in remote sensing technologies, the largest and most successful private sector, the largest governmental research community, and demonstrated great creativity. It is time these strengths are brought together in a synergistic and coordinated whole that will provide for substantial improvement in the quality, availability, and usefulness of weather information.




Also in this issue:

An enterprising move
The view from one academic

Busy times in the tropics
One for the record books

A giant step down the road to multiscale modeling

Hurricane-stressed teachers get digital help from NSDL and DLESE

Governance Update: The October meetings

President’s Corner
Hurricanes and global warming

Web Watch
Study the impacts of changing climate with GIS
The perfect media storm reflected in press clips

Science Bit
Arctic sea ice continues decline as air temperatures rise
Hybrid grass may prove to be valuable fuel source

UCAR Community Calendar