Weather predictions have been pushed ahead dramatically since the 1960s, when an accurate forecast maxed out at three hours. Today, meteorologists can predict weather with equal accuracy up to three days. As a result, the weather report has gained tremendous value—totaling about $11 billion in this country alone.
Still this amount is a fraction of what the forecast could be worth if it stretched into the realm of climate. Weather, climate, and natural, weather-like hazards such as volcanic eruptions affect $3 trillion, or one-sixth of the national economy, every year. Billions of dollars get lost in ships waiting in harbors for an uncertain harvest. The energy industry can only guess how much natural gas a region will need in any particular winter. The implications throughout the economy are almost limitless.
New satellites and computer technology promise to push the three-day accurate prediction further toward climate prediction. But Congress cut the federal budget for prediction models just as the Europeans were making a serious, well-funded effort.
A decade ago, the European Union laid out the social benefits from long-term forecasts and spent the money necessary. The resulting models showed their superiority before Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The European Medium-Range Weather Forecasts predicted Sandy’s path toward the East Coast, beating the American models by a matter of days. The American models predicted that the hurricane would veer off into the Atlantic. Homeowners and the authorities thus failed to take steps to reduce the harm. As the Europeans predicted, Sandy slammed into the Northeast, leaving eight million people without power and causing $50 billion in damage.
Improving hurricane track forecasts is worth serious money. The economic cost to local and state governments of evacuating just one mile of coast before a storm hits totals more than $1 million. If more precise predictions could reduce the expected landfall swath, millions would be saved with every storm. In one year, these savings could pay for the satellite and the computer model developments needed to improve the forecasts.
NASA is at work to help improve the satellite imaging and computer models, but Congressional funding continues to lag behind the Europeans' efforts. Meanwhile, the Chinese are launching a fleet of Earth science satellites, adapting American technology with newer equipment. If things continue the way they are, we’ll be renting our weather future from the competition.