Busalacchi: Decadal Survey Needed for Weather Forecasting Enterprise

Busalacchi: Decadal Survey Needed for Weather Forecasting Enterprise

Antonio (Tony) Busalacchi, Jr., the incoming President of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), called for a Decadal Survey to set a strategy for the U.S. weather forecasting enterprise similar to those conducted for earth science and space sciences.  Busalacchi was one of the witnesses at a congressional hearing on the private sector’s role in weather forecasting that also included Alexander (Sandy) MacDonald, President of Spire Global, one of the companies interested in selling satellite data to NOAA.

The hearing before Rep. Jim Bridenstine’s (R-OK) Subcommittee on Environment of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee was generally friendly, although some Republican members asked questions that tried to shift the focus to climate change or suggested that NOAA was not as open to partnering with the private sector as it should be.  Busalacchi, MacDonald and the other three witnesses — Barry Myers, CEO of AccuWeather; Jim Block, Chief Meteorological Officer of Schneider Electric; and Neil Jacobs, Chief Scientist of Panasonic Weather Solutions — were very positive about their relationships with NOAA, however.

Bridenstine is a leader in efforts to encourage NOAA to incorporate private sector weather data into its numerical weather forecasts and inserted a provision in NOAA’s FY2016 appropriations law creating a commercial weather data pilot program to assess such data to determine if it can be used.  NOAA submitted an implementation plan to Congress this spring explaining that it plans to competitively procure GPS Radio Occultation (GPS-RO) data as the test case.  Spire Global is one of the companies that wants to compete. 

GPS-RO satellites use signals from GPS satellites to make measurements of temperature and water vapor throughout the lower parts of the atmosphere.  When combined with measurements from polar orbiting weather satellites, better weather forecasts are enabled.   NOAA currently obtains such data from the COSMIC satellite constellation, a joint project with Taiwan, and is requesting funds for more in the COSMIC-2 program.  As many as 50,000-100,000 measurements each day would be useful, whereas even with COSMIC-2, NOAA will be obtaining only about 10,000, so there is significant opportunity for commercial sources to provide the rest.

Bridenstine stresses frequently, including at yesterday’s hearing, that he does not foresee replacing the government’s weather satellite capabilities with those of the private sector, but instead enhancing them through government-private sector partnerships with a goal of making the entire U.S. weather enterprise less reliant on large, vulnerable satellites.

The private sector has significant capabilities not just in using NOAA-provided data to make forecasts, but also obtaining their own data through aircraft observations, for example, and creating their own weather models.  Busalacchi described the U.S. weather enterprise as a three-legged stool — government, private sector, academic/research — that work together to yield “the world’s most comprehensive and successful array of weather services in support of the public and private good.”  All three “must continue to evolve [and] the dimunition of any single leg will compromise the entire enterprise, and will negatively impact its diverse beneficiaries.”

The potential of partnerships between the government and the private sector was explored in a 2003 report from the National Research Council (NRC), Fair Weather: Effective Partnerships in Weather and Climate Services.   Busalacchi praised the report, but pointed out that those types of NRC reports rarely get follow-up, they are one-time efforts.  By contrast,  Decadal Surveys are performed every 10 years — a decade — and Congress now requires a mid-term assessment half-way through the relevant decade,

Until recently, Busalacchi was co-chair of the on-going Decadal Survey for Earth Science and Applications from Space.  He stepped aside when he accepted the presidency of UCAR, a position he will take up in August.  He is currently Director of the Earth Systems Interdisciplinary Center at the University of Maryland.

He argues that an “active and ongoing strategic planning process” is needed for the U.S. weather enterprise, the established Decadal Survey process should be utilized, and Congress should request one.  


Note:  The National Research Council (NRC) is the operating arm of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) that conducts studies such as those mentioned above.  The NRC was created in1916 and its reports were referred to as NRC reports, but last year NASEM rebranded itself and no longer uses the NRC label.  Since the full name of the organization is far from mellifluous, most now refer to them simply as “Academy” studies.  The one referenced herein was written in 2003, however, so we refer to it as an NRC study.

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