Weather system revamp hopes to bring sunshine to US economy

New legislation necessitates NOAA to prioritize climate research and forecasting, boosting industries from farming and airlines and improving the public warning system

Farmers have been obsessed with climate for thousands of years. Ancient Greeks and Babylonians tried guidance on planting and harvest by surveying the sky for patterns in clouds and stars and by communing with gods through prayers and animal sacrifices. Modern-day farmers, such as Steve Pitstick, a fifth-generation farmer in Illinois, count on sophisticated instruments for predicting the climate instead.

During the planting season, Pitstick says, he checks the weather forecast three or four times a day. Too much rain entails he cant plant because the heavy machinery will compact the wet clay, stifling the seeds; too little and the seeds wont germinate.

Weather is huge in our business. We use the forecast during planting season to get a sense of what were doing and to know the level of urgency to get the harvests planted, says Pitstick, who grows corn and soybeans.

Weather is big business in many other industries, too, and an ambitious scheme is underway to revamp the countrys weather forecast system. Its the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2017, the first major weather legislation that Congress has passed since the early 1990 s.

The legislation empowers the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration( NOAA) to boost its ability to predict major weather-related events, such as hurricanes, droughts, inundates and wildfires. To accomplish that, NOAA plans to use new technology and data and to work more closely with academic and industry groups. It will also aim to improve the public warning system, such as issuing alertings earlier or using new technology for broadcasting those messages.

NOAA, which runs the National Weather Service, is the primary government agency that collects and analyzes weather data. It holds the worlds largest archive of weather and climate data, which is widely used by other public bureaux, businesses and academic institutions. For instance, solar and wind farm operators rely on weather data to help them forecast their power generation. Some tech and insurance companies rely on NOAA data to develop the software for predicting harvest yields or deluge risks.

The forces-out of nature can cause a heavy fiscal toll. Even routine climate such as rainfall and cooler-than-average days can have an annual economic impact of as much as $485 bn in the US, as it affects every economic sector, the National Center for Atmospheric Research says.

Some industries ensure more impact than others. For airlines, climate caused 32.05% of flight postpones, according to March data from the Bureau of Transportation statistics. One minute of a delayed flight costs airlines $65 on average, according to Airlines for America, an advocacy group.

Already, the US experienced five climate and climate calamities where loss outstripped$ 1bn between 1 January and 6 April this year, says the National Centers for Environmental Information.

I suppose the whole economy is going to benefit from the new law, says Barry Lee Myers, chief executive officer of Accuweather. Industries such as transportation, which may see fewer lags in moving goods to stores and less food spoilage, he notes.

The new law doesnt inject more money into NOAAs budget; it simply directs NOAA to prioritize climate research, says Keith Seitter, executive director of the American Meteorological Society. Congress will have to decide whether to fully fund the research over the next five years.

Weather prediction has improved since humen began methodically catalog and analyze their observations. Five-day forecasts today are as accurate as four-day forecasts were 10 years ago. Employing faster, more powerful computers and more detailed data of weather patterns could increase the accuracy, Seitter says.

If you look back through time and look at the improvements in our forecasting capabilities, it tracks fairly tightly with bigger, faster computers. Every time theres an upgrade in computing power, the models become better and more accurate and that improves the forecasting process, he says.

NOAA already collects massive amounts of data from sources including its own satellites. But lawmakers want the agency to save money by paying for private data rather than launching new spacecrafts, especially when an increasing number of private satellites have be dispatched in recent years, some capturing different or richer situates of data than those from government satellites.

I guess use the data from private satellite sources and private instrumentation, we can perhaps build in a relatively short period some nice advances in tech and nice advances in our forecasting ability, says House Republican Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, a sponsor of the weather legislation.

The new statute directs NOAA to improve forecasts ranging from two weeks to two years, which has traditionally been a benchmark for weather prediction for farmers.

The current atmospheric models provide highly accurate the predictions of up to 10 days, says Antonio Busalacchi, president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, a consortium of more than 100 colleges and universities in North America. To extend that, meteorologists will start including measurements such as heat stored in the oceans and soil moisture levels on land.

Heat influences the intensity of blizzards and rainfalls and moves slower through oceans than it does in the air. Use additional heat data will help meteorologists better understand how earth interacts with its atmosphere. The resulting longer-term climate cycles will then help them build computer models that make more accurate seasonal forecasts, Busalacchi says.

Its something we dont do routinely right now. Thats why its a whole new era of forecasting capability, he says.

Results from closer research cooperation could have significant business impacts.

Jeff Waters, a climate expert and product administrator at RMS, which assesses dangers of catastrophic events from hurricanes to terrorism, says the new research can help his firm to better calculate hazards and design guys more efficient replies for his customers, which include insurance companies.

Waters notes that after Hurricane Andrew made Florida in 1992, more than 10 insurance companies became insolvent because they werent prepared to handle the severity of the damage caused by the storm.

Businesses have been able to access accurate, customizable weather forecasting online only in the last decade or so, says Bill Gail, chief technology officer at private forecaster Global Weather Corporation. Xcel Energy, who utilizes Gails firm to anticipate wind energy production, improved its wind forecasting accuracy by virtually 35% from 2009 to 2015. That improvement contributed to $60.6 m in fuel savings( gasolines that would otherwise be needed to keep natural gas power plants ready in case the wind farms didnt produce enough to meet demand ).

Weather forecasting data is still underused, Gail says, quoting a study by the US Department of Transportation showing weather-related postpones adds $3.4 bn to freight costs annually.

Even if you could only reduce the impact of severe climate by 5 or 10%, the economy will grow in a noticeable route. Its huge, Gail says.

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