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April 2005

The value of a good forecast

Jeff Lazo.

How much is an accurate weather forecast worth to society?

That, in essence, is the question Jeff Lazo is tackling. An economist who splits his time between ISSE and RAL, Jeff is closing in on the first economically valid analysis of the value of daily forecasts to U.S. households.

Jeff and his colleagues produced preliminary estimates about two years ago. They surveyed 381 people in nine cities across the country, asking them questions about how helpful it would be if forecasts became more accurate. Respondents were also asked to choose between different scenarios of improved forecasts and increased household costs for these improved forecasts. The study focused on forecasts of ordinary weather rather than of unusually violent storms.

New research by the Societal Impacts Program aims to quantify the benefit of accurate forecastiing to U.S. households. (Photos by Carlye Calvin.)

The result: improving forecasts as much as theoretically possibly would have an average benefit to households of a little over $15 per year. Since the United States has about 105 million households, this translates into an annual benefit of about $1.6 billion.

Jeff says this type of analysis is an important method for placing a value on forecasts as Congress weighs how much money to appropriate for various programs. “What we’re trying to show is there’s a large public benefit even to improving daily forecasts during ordinary weather,” he explains.

Jeff views the initial survey as “just a snapshot.” Not only did it sample only a small number of people, but it focused on cities, thereby leaving out many farmers and other rural residents who may be particularly affected by the weather.

Working with Rebecca Morss (MMM/ISSE) and Barbara Brown (RAL) to improve the survey, Jeff hopes to conduct a more comprehensive study later this year that will survey a representative sample of more than 1,200 people nationwide.

Still, even the initial survey produced some telling results. For example, more people get their weather forecasts from television and radio than from the Internet or NOAA weather radio; residents in Billings, Montana, look to forecasts to help them decide how to dress for that day; and most people care about information on temperature and precipitation rather than barometric pressure. Not surprisingly, those who work outdoors view forecasts as especially vital.

The study is part of the Societal Impacts Program, an initiative by NCAR and the U.S. Weather Research Program to glean insights into the societal benefits of weather forecasting. Among the issues the Societal Impacts Program researchers hope to address are what kinds of quantitative precipitation forecasts provide the greatest societal benefit and how society will benefit from The Observing System Research and Predictability Experiment (THORPEX), an international collaboration that seeks to improve the accuracy of 1- to 14-day forecasts.

• by David Hosansky

On the Web

For more about the Societal Impacts Program

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