On Wednesday, President Trump announced his intent to nominate AccuWeather CEO Barry Myers to run the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a position that would put the private weather executive in charge of the nation’s public weather forecasting efforts. The appointment of Myers, who unlike most other recent NOAA administrators is not a scientist, could cast a shadow of doubt over the future of a federal agency charged with ensuring the safety of millions. It has already caused a firestorm of controversy in meteorology circles.
NOAA is an agency much larger than the weather—it also manages our nation’s coastal waters, fisheries, and environmental satellites—but the nominee for its top leadership spot comes from a meteorological background, and the focus of his tenure will likely be on the agency’s meteorological services. As with any large field of study, there are politics involved with weather forecasting. These days, the two main arguments over the politics of weather stem from the role of the government in weather prediction, and from climate change.
Myers, who holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration and economics and a law degree, has not publicly stated his views on climate change. But AccuWeather’s official position falls outside the mainstream scientific consensus—in fact, it reads a lot like the soft-denial rhetoric peddled by members of Trump’s cabinet:
“Global climate change is a matter of intense concern and public importance. There can be little doubt that human beings influence the world’s climate. At the same time, our knowledge of the extent, progress, mechanisms and results of global climate change is still incomplete.”
One can assume that, since Myers is the nominee for an agency charged with tracking, researching, and planning for climate change, he’ll at the very least toe the administration’s line when it comes to the issue. Trump has repeatedly stated his belief that climate change is a hoax, and so far he’s nominated people who agree with his views. Almost every scientist who studies climate change forcefully disagrees.
Climate change aside, one of the key battles within NOAA in the coming years could be over the agency’s role in predicting the weather. Much of the tension between the public sector and the private sector, including companies like AccuWeather, is rooted in the extent to which the National Weather Service (NWS) should be allowed to compete with the products and services offered by private weather companies. Some television stations worry that local NWS offices providing video updates during severe weather outbreaks encroaches on their viewership and leads to unfair competition. Others in private enterprise believe that the NWS has no business providing public forecasts at all.
The top brass at AccuWeather have a history of advocating the latter view. The National Weather Service came under threat in 2005 when then-Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) introduced a bill that would’ve curtailed the agency’s ability to make its data and services available to the public. The legislation would have forced the NWS to funnel its data through private weather companies, like Pennsylvania-based AccuWeather, giving companies the ability to sell us back the data and services we already paid for through taxes. Santorum introduced the bill two days after Barry Myers’ brother Joel, who founded AccuWeather, donated $2,000 to the Santorum-supporting America’s Foundation PAC. The bill garnered significant ridicule and it ultimately died in committee.
There is a glimmer of hope that the Weather Service could make it through the Trump administration relatively unscathed. The president signed the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2017 earlier this year, a long-awaited bill that aims to bolster the government’s weather prediction efforts in the coming decades. Last June, Myers testified before a House subcommittee that private industry needs the services of the government to succeed. When his name surfaced earlier this year as a potential nominee, Myers told the Washington Post that his aim is to help the public and private sector cooperate “to achieve great things.”
At the same time, the spokesperson for the NWS employee’s union, which vehemently opposes Myers’ appointment, told the Washington Post that an Administrator Myers would “turn the Weather Service into a taxpayer-funded corporate subsidy of AccuWeather.”
While it’s hard to be sure how the NWS would fare under Myers, what is certain is that the forecasting agency is one of the best uses of taxpayer dollars in the federal government. Its services are critical for protecting life and property—look no further than this year’s devastating hurricane season for proof. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria, and Nate all crashed into the United States within a two-month period. These storms could have collectively killed thousands of people without the days of warning provided by the NWS.
NOAA’s new GOES-16 weather satellite let us watch each storm’s movements with unprecedented speed and resolution. The government’s fleet of Hurricane Hunter aircraft regularly flew through the core of each storm to tell us what to expect. NOAA’s weather models helped its hurricane experts predict the tracks of each storm with a level of accuracy only dreamed of just a few decades ago. The government’s network of weather balloons helped those models ingest accurate data to make predictions even more accurate. And NOAA’s extensive weather radar network helped residents prepare for storms down to street level.
The services provided by private weather companies are crucial, too—millions of people and businesses rely on the forecasts generated by companies like AccuWeather. The Weather Channel’s unrelenting coverage of major weather events has saved countless lives. Meteorologists who work in the private sector are fantastic people who help make our country tick. But without NOAA’s taxpayer-funded data, technology, and products, private weather companies would be lost in the wilderness, lacking the tools they need to do their jobs.
The complete abolition of the NWS is highly unlikely. But there are ways that the agency’s mission could slowly be redirected from helping people to helping companies sell weather information to people. It’s not hard to envision a Santorum-inspired effort come to life again given the current political environment, and especially with a businessman at NOAA’s helm.
Weather affects everyone across all socioeconomic lines, and the free flow of weather data and forecasts is crucial for our continued safety. A thriving NOAA and National Weather Service is beneficial to both people and business. It’s imperative that the NOAA Administrator-to-be protects this agency so it can continue to protect us.