Weather, or Not
Hurricane season is upon us, and already we've had one named storm—Arlene—and likely others will have materialized by the time this issue reaches you. As readers in Florida and the Gulf Coast are all too aware, the 2004 hurricane season took a heavy toll on recreational boats and boating infrastructure. We're told by hurricane authorities, the outlook for this year is no better. All of which presents an interesting context for a disturbing development in the U.S. Senate.
Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvannia introduced a bill this spring that, if passed, would prohibit NOAA's National Weather Service from competing with companies like AccuWeather, The Weather Channel, and Weather Underground. According to opponents of this initiative, it's possible, should the bill pass, that some portions of the NWS website and its myriad services to mariners would go away. Unfortunately, the full effects of this bill's passage can't be clearly ascertained, due in part to the vague language of the bill—we've read it and we're still confused—and the fact that the discretion of Commerce Secretary Carlos Guitierrez would come into play in determining what pieces of information would be removed.
Santorum has stated that his National Weather Services Duties Act of 2005 seeks "to clarify the duties and responsibilities of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Weather Service, and for other purposes." It seems that up until the end of last year, the NWS had been observing a non-compete, non-duplication of effort policy toward weather services in the private sector. According to Santorum, the policy has changed and the agency has promised only to give due consideration to the abilities of those private sector entities.
One of those entities—AccuWeather—is headquartered in State College, PA, making that company's employees constituents of Mr. Santorum. While it's clear that his proposed legislation would assist that business and its several hundred employees, it's alarming that its passage might remove an important safety net for many, many more people.
The senator's supporters claim that his bill won't affect emergency broadcasts and other storm-related advisories from the NWS. But is the measure really necessary? Presumably, commercial weather services exist by taking the same NWS data that many of us regularly depend upon and augment it with further analysis and graphic presentation. That's a valid service. Those citizens who require that level of sophistication in weather information are happy to pay additionally for it. For the rest of us, the basic weather information made available via the NWS is a critical tool for planning, and it works ongoingly to teach us about weather. For many—sailors and small plane pilots especially—the NWS's products are vital.
Mr. Santorum's measure doesn't require that commercial weather companies provide any additional data or analysis. It simply gives them control over the distribution of NWS products. As taxpayers, aren't we entitled to this information firsthand? Furthermore, doesn't it seem almost ludicrous that an elected official ask citizens to pay for it again through a commercial entity?
This bill, S.786, is currently under review by the Senate Committee on Commerce. After working its way through the Senate, it will then be considered by the House. All of that, of course, will take time. In the interim, if you're concerned, you can take action by writing to your representatives in Congress. Tell them to leave the NWS alone. Tell them, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."