Could better technology have prevented Monday’s shocking decision-making blunder by Governor Andrew Cuomo and other political officials about winter storm Juno that led to a total economic shutdown across the Northeast United States?
The answer is probably yes. Weather prediction technology in the United States is dangerously antiquated. And overly timid federal U.S. governmental spending and political considerations are preventing the system from remaining state-of-the-art.
The politicians ordered a total shutdown of public transportation systems including roads and mass transit across New York and much of New England. They feared an impending winter storm. While eastern New England did get heavy snows, virtually no unusual weather materialized west of New Haven. But the economic consequences of this shutdown are surely huge. We will hear numbers in coming days, but the cost could easily go into the billions. Companies across the region were forced to shut down, unnecessarily, it turned out. Given New York’s centrality to the U.S. economy, the ripple effects will be gigantic.
Yes, it’s better to be safe than sorry, and the politicians did the best they could with the information they had. But in making such impactful decisions they should be able to rely on state-of-the-art systems.
In deciding to order the shutdown, the politicians relied on the predictions of the U.S. National Weather Service. But the systems that underlie weather prediction for the U.S.—including computers, satellites, and human staff—are increasingly inadequate.
Weather forecasting today depends on supercomputers to crunch massive amounts of information about highly complex systems. But as this article from last October points out, purchasing new supercomputer capacity for the Weather Service was delayed, more or less for political reasons. Money for a new computer was allocated by Congress, but the Obama administration hesitated to spend it. The purchase was to be from IBM, which then sold that business to China’s Lenovo. Rather than buy the computer from a Chinese company, the government had to restart the process, and ended up buying a supercomputer from Cray, retaining IBM as the intermediary. But after all the delays the new system won’t go into full operation until late this year. Much smaller countries like the UK and Korea now have many times the computing capacity of the U.S. in their weather supercomputers. As the author of last year’s article writes, “The U.S. is rapidly falling behind in the computational resources necessary for high quality numerical weather prediction.”
That’s not all. One of the key data sources for those computers is satellites. Here again, the U.S. is falling behind. While the U.S. has a large number of satellites in orbit, that’s largely because many have lasted far longer than was expected. And there have been major delays in completing and launching the next generation of satellites. As that same Popular Mechanics article puts it, we have “a broken system that…leaves America at risk for losing access to reliable weather data.” Here’s a 2013 PBS Nova article on the problem entitled “Going Blind: The Coming Satellite Crisis.” And here’s yet another scary article.
As if that weren’t enough, funding threatens the very ability of the Weather Service to do its job. In a New York Times op-ed essay last October entitled “Our Failing Weather Infrastructure,” author Kathryn Miles wrote of “understaffed forecasting offices” and “radar that crashes, broken wind-detection devices, failing satellites and budget constraints that prevent them from utilizing tools like weather balloons.” Miles, who wrote a book called “Superstorm: Nine Days Inside Hurricane Sandy,” adds that the Weather Service in 2013 “put in place a hiring freeze and cut off funding for forecaster training and equipment maintenance.” That was largely because of the famous Congressionally driven budget “sequestration.” After Hurricane Sandy, the Department of Commerce did a study of the Weather Service and found what Miles says was “‘a severe staffing shortage’ in its technology and science branch, which is responsible for everything from software development to communicating watches and warnings.” Yikes!
My 22-year-old daughter, who got a day off when her own employer completely shut down today, just walked to our window on New York’s 14th St. and said “Jeez, it’s just a completely normal day out there.” How that happened is something we should all worry about. A total economic shutdown by politicians seldom happens, and should certainly not be based on inadequate science and data. Yet that’s what happened.
Failure to stay technologically abreast with other nations radically impairs our country. We’ve seen that failure in our education system, and now we see it in our weather-prediction systems. The economic cost of falling behind, as in the Juno winter storm debacle, is huge.
Note: An earlier version of this story omitted the fact that the government had completed the purchase process for a new weather supercomputer. This version has been corrected.