Throughout a busy hurricane season, Louisiana residents have watched more than their fair share of weather forecasts, anxious to know whether the next big storm is headed their way. But when it comes to meteorology, how does American know-how stack up against its competition?
If you would like to help our neighbors in Texas and Florida who are reeling from hurricanes…
It’s a question journalist Jeff Reeves recently tackled in a story for Contingencies, a magazine read by actuaries, those professional number-crunchers who assess risk. Reeves discovered that the United States has room for improvement in developing the best forecasting technology.
“Experts in the profession agree that, unfortunately, U.S. weather modeling is well behind that of Europe and Japan in its accuracy — because our technology is inferior,” Reeves notes.
“Some scientists are downright ashamed of the state of play between American meteorology and forecasting models used elsewhere in the world,” Reeves added. Clifford Mass, an atmospheric sciences professor at the University of Washington, called the gap between forecasting capabilities here and abroad “a national embarrassment” that “has resulted in large unnecessary costs for the U.S. economy and needless endangerment of our citizens.”
Overall, progress in weather prediction has done a lot of good. “U.S. deaths in attributed to lightning strikes haven’t topped 50 in a single year since 2002,” Reeves points out. “But in the 1940s, an average of 329 Americans died annually. A similar trend can be seen in tornado-related deaths, which have declined from an annual average of 179 from 1940 to 1949 to a mere 18 deaths in 2016 — a 30-year low.”
And those declines happened even as the population grew dramatically. Better weather forecasting has saved lives in hurricanes, too, allowing advance notice for storm preparations and evacuations. How much better can forecasting get, and what do we want to pay for it?
“It is an open question how accurate American citizens and businesses want their forecasts to be — and how willing they are to pay for the infrastructure to support such an improved system,” Reeves writes.
Ultimately, the president and Congress guide much of the spending on meteorological science. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the lead agency for weather research, has essentially had a standstill budget since 2012. “Thanks in large part to an unsympathetic view toward climate science, President Donald Trump is proposing a 16 percent reduction in funding for NOAA and a 32 percent cut to the weather and climate agency’s research arm,” Reeves reports.
Given our vulnerability to severe weather, Louisiana residents depend more than most on accurate forecasting to get out harm’s way. And with meteorology as with anything else, maybe the abiding lesson is that you get what you pay for.