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Has the National Weather Service Outlived its Usefulness?

Last night we huddled in the dark through one of the roughest thunderstorms in years here in Southwest Florida. Copious rainfall totals were widespread, including over six inches in my neighborhood. Sitting for hours listening to the ferocity outside, I could not help but laugh out loud at the local forecast displayed on my smartphone: "Overnight, partly cloudy." No mention of rain whatsoever. Even the office from which they supposedly generated that forecast was reporting heavy rain that hour, eventually recording almost three inches. Botching a forecast is understandable as this is a complicated science. But when a massive line of severe thunderstorms extends all the way from Tampa to Naples, it is unfathomable that the National Weather Service (NWS) did not even mention rain in their forecast, much less issue warnings for the public.

Formed in 1970, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) annual budget is now a staggering $5.5 billion, 18 percent of which is committed to the National Weather Service. However, private forecasting companies have seen a surge in business from weather-sensitive operations such as utilities, aviation, trucking, rail, ski areas and even other government entities such as departments of transportation, emergency management offices and school districts because the government forecasts no longer sufficiently serve the needs of the public.

In my own profession, awareness of approaching weather is of paramount importance. NWS forecasts like today's "50 percent chance of rain" are utterly worthless to me. I need to know if, when and where it is going to rain, not CYA percentages. Out of necessity, I have become quite the weather aficionado and, truth be told, generate forecasts far more meaningful than those issued by the government. I also procure highly useful information from regional weather discussion sites and I am constantly amazed in observing intelligent, yet non-credentialed amateurs consistently outperforming the highly-paid government professionals.

As we hopefully return to a period of conservative ideology in our country, we may need to reconsider the practicality of gigantic government bureaucracies such as NOAA and NWS when many similar services could be more efficiently provided within the private sector. I understand NOAA provides a wide range of services, but $5.5 billion? Very few governmental agencies are held accountable for their performance and the embarrassing effort from our local governmental weather forecast office was a stark case in point.


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Comments (16)

Always presumin... (Below threshold)

Always presuming they were useful in the FIRST place.

Hey! Lay off! Their invol... (Below threshold)

Hey! Lay off! Their involved in solving 'the global warming problem'. Even NASA is involved.

If you were watching the We... (Below threshold)

If you were watching the Weather Channel, you were probably lucky to get a tiny tidbit once an hour (if they weren't too busy with "Storm Stories" or "It could happen tomorrow"); sometimes as specific (and as accurate) as the daily horoscope prophecies.

Has big Goverment served an... (Below threshold)

Has big Goverment served any useful purpose lately?

Oh yeah, they are great advocate's for illegal immigrant activity.

Sounds like they missed a c... (Below threshold)
M. Murcek:

Sounds like they missed a chance to call it a "named storm."

The Weather Channel has bee... (Below threshold)

The Weather Channel has been generating their own forecasts for quite some time now. The only product from NWS you'll see on TWC these days is warnings and watches.

I blame NBC.

At least you can call up or... (Below threshold)

At least you can call up or email the local NWS office and talk to the meteorologists directly. They can even explain why they busted so bad on the forecast. Try doing that to any other governmental agency.

My late father had some pre... (Below threshold)
Jim Addison:

My late father had some prescient thoughts on the state of meteorology in general.

Back in the late '70s or early '80s, when predictions turned to percentages, he scoffed. After a "forecast" of "60% chance of precipitation," he remarked, "This is no prediction - they can't be wrong! If it rains, they said there was a 60% chance. If it doesn't, well, it was 40% chance of that. But I've never seen it rain 60%. The chance of rain is always 50% - either it rains, or it doesn't."

Then shortly before his death, when the whole "global warming crisis" erupted into the news, he asked, "How can I believe these people can tell me what the temperature is going to be 50 years from now when they can't even tell me for sure whether or not it is going to rain tomorrow?"

It's entirely possible that... (Below threshold)

It's entirely possible that the storms were not severe. Rainfall rates are not taken into account when determining if it is severe. The current criteria for severe thunderstorms is wind speed greater than 58 mph or one-inch hail. If the line moving through your area had neither of these, it wasn't severe.

Oh, and the percentage is b... (Below threshold)

Oh, and the percentage is based not on whether it will rain, but how much of the forecast area will see rain. A 60% chance for a given day means that 60% of the forecast area will receive some kind of measurable rainfall.

Weather forecasting nowaday... (Below threshold)
Mac Lorry:

Weather forecasting nowadays is highly dependent on computer modeling, which itself is based on the branch of science known as "quisquiliarum" science. The theory behind computer modeling is that you can write software that models something that's not well understood and when the model doesn't match nature, tweaks are added. Over time the model can hindcast weather events it has been tweaked for and it's then assumed it can forecast the weather.

When the weather doesn't match the forecast it's the weather that's wrong and that's why the forecast wasn't changed to match the weather. The Scientists knew that if they waited a while the weather would change to match the forecast. Quisquiliarum science is also the basis for AGW.

BTW, "quisquiliarum" is Latin for junk as in junk science.

Amen. I live in the Chicago... (Below threshold)

Amen. I live in the Chicago area, and check the NWS forecast every night before I go to bed. It's amazing how much they botch it a mere 12 hours later. If they say it will be sunny, it's cloudy. If they say it's going to rain, it doesn't. And their summer temperature highs are usually off by 10 degrees - 10 degrees! - or more.

But unlike your predicament, the opposite is true here in Chicago. If the NWS sees one dark cloud, they throw up watches and warnings, blow the sirens for an hour and scare holy hell out of everyone. In the end, we don't even get rain.

I guarantee the next time that there's an honest-to-God tornado around here, people are going to die because many of us treat the NWS warnings the way we treat a car alarm going off ... just more crying wolf.

In military weather, we don... (Below threshold)
Weather Guy:

In military weather, we don't have the luxury of using percentages when we do our forecast, it either will or won't rain. And when we (rarely) get it very wrong, we have to do forecast reviews to analyze and find what we missed. NWS jobs sound like a piece of cake to us.
Oh, and percentage coverage is a common misconception. If they say 60% chance of rain, what that means is when weather conditions in the past are the same as what they are currently, 60% of the time it has rained.
And believe it or not, as the weather models get better and better, so do the forecasts. People just remember when we get it wrong, never when we get it right.

In St. Louis, when the weat... (Below threshold)
Big Mo:

In St. Louis, when the weather shows and sites say that there's at least a 40% chance of rain, it'll usually rain. If they say 30% (or less), that means that somewhere there will be a little precip or none at all.

I think our local weather ... (Below threshold)

I think our local weather casting does much better job of forecasting here in Texas. It is very wet or hot. Cant go wrong.
The hurricane personnel that guess (I mean 'project') how many main storms that will be named during a season are the ones that make us chuckle here

They could pay me 1 billion... (Below threshold)
rich K:

They could pay me 1 billion to stick my finger out the window and I bet I get it right as often as they do.






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