The recent retirement announcement of long-time, National Weather Service director, Louis Uccellini, brings to light the many contributions he made to meteorology and guiding the growth of the practice during his 50-year career as a meteorologist. Specifically of interest, is how Uccellini embraced teamwork to accomplish mutual goals, by establishing private/public partnerships and his work to establish the practice of Impact-Based Decision Support Services at the NWS, which moves meteorologists into the role of risk communicator.
Uccellini saw the benefits of fostering partnerships, for example, through his role as the U.S. representative to the World Meteorological Organization, where he led efforts to improve collaboration between nations in sharing information, infrastructure, and science-based services. Those relationships led to other WMO members seeing how the U.S. model of private and public meteorological relationships worked and embracing the private weather sector as an equal partner.
Both the private and public sector have unique strengths to bring to meteorological practices. The NWS has the funding and long-term vision to make capital investments and develop an infrastructure that produces a wealth of weather information, including surface observations, radar, satellite data, as well as running multiple numerical weather models that predict the future state of the atmosphere. This information helps the government meet its primary public safety obligation.
It’s not financially practical for a private sector company to produce and collect such massive amounts of weather information because it wouldn’t provide a return on investment. Because the NWS makes its data freely available, the private sector can use the information for its purposes as well.
Unlike the NWS, a private weather provider prepares custom forecasts for a variety of purposes and precise locations. For example, a private weather company may issue forecasts for the exact location of an oil rig’s operation in the ocean, detailing the time of critical wind changes or frontal passages and providing alerts about the onset of significant rain, lightning or thunderstorms that might affect operations. Private forecasters can also provide customized forecasts and risk consultation for farmers, large festivals and events, retailers, and many other corporate interests.
Private weather providers also provide value to large, global companies that seek seamless services anywhere in the world, including in places where the National Meteorological Centers do not provide coverage. With more and more extreme weather events occurring, having the resources of both the public and private weather services benefits businesses and consumers alike.
The growth of meteorologists as risk communicators also flourished under Uccellini’s leadership, as the NWS improved the connection between forecasts and warnings, and public safety decisions. By nature, meteorologists are committed to helping improve how people, businesses and communities prepare and respond to weather events, but more and more, a meteorologist’s role is becoming that of a risk communicator, ultimately leading to greater protection of life and property, safer business operations and more resilient communities.
Uccelini first realized the need for this 10 years ago while attending a national “Vital Conversation” where emergency managers and others were meeting. It brought to light the idea that issuing weather forecasts and warnings in-and-of-themselves weren’t enough information for public safety decisions. Soon after, the NWS forecasters began forecasting on the local impacts of anticipated severe weather, in addition to the forecast itself. This practice became known as Impact-based Decision Support Services at the NWS.
While the NWS primarily focuses on public safety, for businesses, a private weather company meteorologist with deep industry expertise would play an even bigger role as a risk communicator. For example, they might conduct a review of a company to assess where there are potential risks to operations and crew. This is often done with utilities, particularly with the rise in extreme weather events, to help identify potential weather risks that drive line failures and power outages, as well as response preparation and actions. By combining this consultative activity with AI and predictive analytics, utilities deploy a sophisticated method to understand imminent risk for disruption to their territory and an action plan to lessen the impact to the grid and customers. Private weather forecasting is a $7 billion industry, according to a 2017 National Weather Service study, and it’s continuing to grow at a rate of around 10-15% each year as more organizations have a need for operational intelligence specific to their industry, geography, assets and risk management.
The practice of meteorology has evolved significantly in the past 50 years, and the partnerships and risk communication that Uccellini forged will continue to grow in importance, particularly as both the public and private sector work to manage the growing extreme weather events associated with climate change.