How to improve weather forecasts

Recent headlines have underscored the mounting costs to the nation of natural disasters. Hurricanes, torrential rains, wildfires, and other weather- and climate-related disasters claimed hundreds of lives and cost more than $300 billion in damage last year alone. More detailed and accurate forecasts are critical for protecting lives and property, strengthening our economy, and safeguarding our national security.

So as thousands of the world's leading scientists gather next week in Washington for the American Geophysical Union annual meeting, why haven’t more of their landmark discoveries made their way to the public?

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Our nation is slipping behind the forecasting capabilities of global competitors such as the European Union that have comprehensive, well-funded programs focused on leveraging new research for everyday applications. If this continues, it could leave the U.S. in a precarious position. Data-driven industries, from agriculture to transportation, increasingly rely on both short- and longer-term forecasts to operate efficiently, while our armed services need cutting-edge predictions for operations that are a matter of life or death.

To begin closing the gap, Congress and the White House came together last year in bipartisan agreement on a sweeping weather bill. Passed unanimously by the House and Senate and signed by President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Republicans move to block Yemen war-powers votes for rest of Congress Trump says he's considering 10 to 12 contenders for chief of staff Michael Flynn asks judge to spare him from jail time MORE, the new law lays the groundwork for investments in atmospheric research and technology. It emphasizes the importance of public-private partnerships, which have played a significant role in dramatically improving weather forecasts over recent decades.

Policymakers now must build on this legislation to better cement the ties between the federally funded research community and the rapidly growing ecosystem of private forecasting companies. These companies provide general forecasts for the public as well as specialized predictions for commercial customers, such as detailed wind forecasts for wind farms.

As our society adopts new technological innovations, it demands even more sophisticated weather forecasts. For example, autonomous vehicle technology will require comprehensive forecasts of road surface conditions along highways and streets to route cars and trucks around icy pavements and adjust their speeds in different types of weather conditions. Similarly, the future use of drones as delivery vehicles will rely on very fine-scale predictions of winds, temperature, and precipitation.

Researchers at universities and federal agencies are using powerful computer models and advanced data techniques to improve short-term forecasts as well as longer-term predictions that can anticipate prevailing weather patterns weeks, months, or even more than a year in advance. Such longer-term predictions require a broad, Earth systems approach that analyzes the interactions of the atmosphere with the oceans, land surface, and ice-covered regions to extend skillful predictions beyond day-to-day weather.

Research breakthroughs, however, often fail to make it to commercial and public use, in part because of differing incentives. Private companies, for example, seek to advance technologies that give them sole market advantages. Academic institutions publish information about publicly funded advances in peer-reviewed journals and make their discoveries widely accessible. Incentives will never be perfectly aligned, but better organizational bridges from research to commercial applications can minimize the differences.

The disconnect between the public and private sectors is also reflected in the budgeting process. Federal funding in the geosciences tends to emphasize discoveries that lead to academic publication or support government agency goals instead of commercial uses.

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The complex interrelationships among federal agencies, university researchers, and private companies have spurred calls for Congress to authorize a decadal survey that brings together weather experts from all sectors. This can be patterned after previous decadal surveys organized by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine — such as astronomy and Earth observations from space — to identify key research and funding priorities and coordinate the transition from research to commercial use.

Next week's conference of the American Geophysical Union should remind us of the remarkable promise offered by innovations that are occurring every day in research facilities across the country. The time has come for policymakers to lay the groundwork for more productive public-private partnerships, thereby improving forecasts and generating far-reaching benefits for the safety and prosperity of us all.

Antonio J. Busalacchi is the president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, a nonprofit consortium of 117 North American colleges and universities focused on research and training in the Earth system sciences.

William B. Gail is a founder of the Global Weather Corporation and a past president of the American Meteorological Society.