Fox News Publishes Ill-Advised Calls To End The National Weather Service

While Hurricane Irene hit the East Coast, an op-ed at advocated for eliminating the National Weather Service, a government agency that provides weather data and forecasts for public and private use. In the piece, the Competitive Enterprise Institute's Iain Murray and David Bier laughably complain that the National Weather Service “hijacks local radio and television stations” to “force” potentially lifesaving weather warnings on the public, and claim the NWS “may actually be dangerous.”

To support this claim, CEI suggests the NWS did a poor job predicting Hurricane Katrina. In fact, two days before the hurricane hit New Orleans, the NWS reportedly predicted the hurricane's strength with "unusual" accuracy, and the director of NWS's National Hurricane Center personally warned the Mayor of New Orleans and the governors of Mississippi and Louisiana. Republican Senator Jim DeMint praised the NWS for their early and accurate forecast, saying it “saved countless lives along the Gulf Coast.”

CEI also links to an article which undermines the argument that NWS should be eliminated because some private sector firms have more accurate precipitation and temperature predictions. The article states that the NWS shifted its focus from day-to-day predictions to weather forecasts with “public safety” implications like “catastrophic storms.” As a result, the NWS has improved its “lead time” and accuracy in predicting tornadoes and hurricanes.

Washington Monthly's Steve Benen also points out that private outlets “rely on information they receive from the National Weather Service.”

And Scientific American noted in a 2000 article that the private sector would struggle to provide some of the services covered by the NWS, including these severe-weather warnings:

The idea of getting rid of the NWS starts to break down when Myers talks about taking over the government's data-gathering responsibilities. Devleoping and launching weather satellites (now a duty of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) costs hundreds of millions a year; the upgrades of NWS radar and computers in the 1980s and 1990s required an investment of billions. No private company could bear the burden of these expenses.
Scientific American also noted the role NWS plays in “incubating the basic science” that drives meteorologists' predictions.

Severe-weather warnings pose the biggest challenge to those who advocate taking over NWS responsibilities. Even the most diehard advocates of privatization often acknowledge that there is a legitimate place for the government in making these warnings. It's not that private firms can't issue hurricane warnings, given proper resources, but any company that mistakenly puts out a warning might face huge litigation exposure. Every mile of coastline evacuated erroneously costs coastal economies close to $1 million.

Even some on the right found the CEI op-ed risible. Writing on a blog that promoted “climategate,” meteorologist Dr. Ryan Maue argued that the infrastructure and coordination that the NWS provides is irreplaceable:

NOAA, the NWS, and the National Hurricane Center have coordinated for decades with universities and other government labs to develop the best possible data assimilation and mathematical modeling techniques. The national research and operations infrastructure developed, maintained, and advanced using government funding is truly something to be prideful about in America.

Suggesting that insurance companies or other private entities would have come up with this sort of infrastructure is fantastical and exhibits ignorance of the military-scale coordination necessary for the entire system to work.

This is not the first time that Fox has published calls to eliminate the NWS during a hurricane. In 2007, published an op-ed by John Lott that asked “Does Government Weather Forecasting Endanger Lives?”