House Panel Examines Use of Commercial Weather Data for Forecasts

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Publication date: 
30 July 2015
Number: 
105

Over the course of two separate hearings, held on May 20 and July 14, the Environment Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee delved into the topic of weather data, which comes from multiple sources and is used in the weather prediction models run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), making possible the nation’s weather forecasts.  Subcommittee Chairman Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) convened the hearings as a platform to encourage the adoption of rules and policies at NOAA to spur the expanded use of commercial sources for weather data.  Bridenstine believes such an effort could launch a space-based commercial weather data industry and significantly improve weather forecasts.

Bridenstine began the first of the two hearings by touting that, on the night before, the full House had passed legislation he sponsored, H.R. 1561, the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2015, following over two years of mostly bipartisan legislative work on it in the Science Committee.  Bridenstine asserted his bill “will improve our ability to accurately predict the weather and save lives and property” and praised it as being “a very bipartisan agreement,” before thanking full committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Subcommittee Ranking Member Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) for their support of and work on the bill.  FYI previously reported on H.R. 1561 here.  Bridenstine emphasized, “A main tenant of our now House-passed weather legislation is its recognition of the role that commercial weather data can play as a piece of the solution available to NOAA.

The Senate has been also been holding hearings on weather issues, and the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee approved a pair of weather bills in separate meetings in May and June.  These Senate bills are different in substance and focus than the House weather bill, but the mutual interest and movement on weather research issues in both chambers is a notable development and could lead to an effort to reconcile the two chambers’ efforts into a final weather bill.

Weather observations come from many sources – most notably from a global suite of weather satellites, aerial measurements, and ground-based measurements -- and together they provide the critical input stream into the world’s numerical weather prediction models, including those run by NOAA.  Bridenstine explained that, “Today we will hear from experts across multiple disciplines to better understand how NOAA currently incorporates external data, as well as what options are available to NOAA outside of traditional sources…. I’d like to use this hearing to kick start the conversation on how we can craft a data policy that meets our international obligations, provides access to researchers and the academic community, and does not prevent the growth of this nascent [commercial weather data] industry.

Bridenstine struck a positive note with NOAA during both hearings, lauding Stephen Volz, NOAA’s Assistant Administrator for Satellites and Information Services, for having had signaled an openness to considering new sources of commercial data at a February subcommittee hearing.  Bridenstine maintained, however, that he is concerned that NOAA’s “free and open” weather data policy undermines the viability of a potential commercial weather industry. 

During the second hearing, Bridenstine notably thanked Volz for having collaborated with him on a concept NOAA pilot project to competitively select at least one private provider of space-based weather data and study how it integrates into NOAA’s existing data ecosystem.  Said Bridenstine: “With this pilot project, NOAA will be able to determine if the purchased data can be viably used in our numerical weather models,” adding that this pilot project was also included in H.R. 1561. 

Bridenstine acknowledged that NOAA is constrained under international law from significantly altering its open access data policy.  The NOAA policy adheres to the principles of the World Meteorological Organization’s (WMO’S) Resolution 40, which requires environmental weather data to be shared internationally and to which the U.S. has treaty obligations.  Bridenstine expressed concerns with both NOAA’s policy and WMO Resolution 40: “While I agree with the intention of this policy, it could also possibly have negative effects on the very people NOAA is trying to help.  It could prevent markets from forming, thwart innovation, reduce the quantity of data available, perpetuate the existing government monopoly, and cause costs to balloon.  In short, this policy could work against our ability to predict timely and accurate weather events.

Bonamici, who is also a sponsor of H.R. 1561, used her opening statement in the first hearing to come to the defense of NOAA’s open access data policy, tying it to the success of American’s vibrant weather services industry.  Said Bonamici: “The preservation of full and open access to core data products is essential, and it’s enabled the growth of the weather enterprise – public and private.  Policies that enable the sharing of data and information with the research community, our international partners, and commercial entities has brought the weather industry to where it is today.

In her statements, Bonamici was less keen than Bridenstine on NOAA making a wholesale shift in its business model for acquiring weather data from one as a provider of data to one as a purchaser of data.  She asked some tough questions about the consequences of such a switch: “If we’re moving toward a model where the government is solely a purchaser, not a provider of weather data ….Can NOAA freely share the data it purchases?  If not, what would that mean for maintaining our international obligations?  If NOAA maintains its policy of free and unrestricted use of data it purchases, will it be forced to purchase data at a premium that will outweigh the anticipated cost savings?

Both Bridenstine and Bonamici noted that NOAA already purchases some types of weather data from commercial sources, and so the agency’s use of commercial weather data for prediction has precedent.  Bridenstine ticked off some of these sources in his opening statement at the second hearing: “Through this subcommittee’s oversight, we know that NOAA does in fact already purchase weather data from commercial entities, including lightning data, aircraft observations, and synthetic aperture imagery for ice detection.  Why not space-based weather data as well?”  Because these types of weather data that Bridenstine listed have only regional and local value, they pass muster under both NOAA’s open access policy and WMO Resolution 40.

Manson Brown, the Deputy Administrator of NOAA, testified during the second hearing, making the case for the importance of a globally-connected, open, and free weather data system and its role as a critical public good for the well-being of the nation and world.  Defending NOAA’s policy of open access to weather data, Brown said: “The weather forecasting system…must have an assured and uninterrupted flow of high quality data…. An accurate forecast three or more days in advance can only be made when the entire globe has been measured by both satellites and in situ sensors.  Since no single entity…has the capacity to do this on their own, a global system of systems that seeks to maximize free and open sharing of data has developed…. NOAA provides only three of the eight primary satellites that feed data into the global forecasting system.  We share U.S. data freely and openly so that we can receive data freely and openly from our international partners…. By volume, we receive about three times as much environmental data for our forecasting models as we provide.”   Brown expressed an openness to NOAA working with a space-based commercial weather data industry, but emphasized again that the agency would not be willing to sacrifice the principle of free and open in the process: “For our satellite systems, our desire is to preserve an unblinking stream of high quality scientific data that can be assured over the long term…. NOAA has and will continue to explore industry’s ability to contribute to these goals in a way that minimizes risks, maximizes assuredness, and upholds the convention of full, free, and open.”