Although government-backed weather agencies around the world have been helping humankind for over 160 years, they could not forecast private players threatening their sector in the digital era. N13 explores how privatisation of weather forecasts would change your lives
Humans have been benefiting from weather forecasts for several centuries. Although we have had weather predictions since the time of Babylonians, an official Meteorological Department started only in 1854 when the British government opened the Met Office. This paved way for many other government-backed agencies around the world.
Since then we have been predicting the weather using science and technology. The collective effort to share data on weather has been bringing out the best forecasts to help us expect weather changes and prepare for the challenges.
For example, the United States’ National Weather Service, the largest in the world, gets three times more data from other countries than they collect. And the best part about how government-backed weather-predicting organisations work is that they share the data for free.
Although it has been inaccurate many a time and finds itself the butt of jokes, weather forecasts have been helping organisations in areas such as health, transport and defence, saving time, energy, and billions of money for companies and governments.
But, more than 160 years after the formation, government weather forecasting systems are under severe threat today ― from private companies. There are more and more firms entering the industry and pushing centuries-old government agencies out of the scene. Some of the major private weather companies are AccuWeather and The Weather Channel.
One of the first government-supported agencies to suffer from privatisation of weather forecasts is the world’s oldest ― The Met Office. The BBC had had a huge contract with the Met Office since 1922 for weather forecasts. Since 2017, this contract has been given to MeteoGroup, owned by the private equity group General Atlantic.
While we would see rapid technological advancements in the field with more private players entering the market, it would also lead to the destruction of an industry that is built on a century of data sharing.
All weather business
Weather forecast is big business. Billions of dollars are spent on forecast models run by supercomputers across the world. There are two models that are a step ahead of others ― the American model run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the European model run by the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF).
In 2016, a private company, Panasonic, made the news when they claimed they have a weather model that is as good as the American and European. This surprised many experts in the field of weather forecasts. For them, it was impossible to match the standards of the American and European government agencies. However, further tests have proved that the Panasonic model could even be better than the two others.
The emergence of private players is expected to further boost the advancements in weather prediction. The new models would help us understand the Earth better and predict weather changes that we could never have done before.
The weather forecast models have improved at an average rate in the past 50 years. A six-day forecast today is as good as a three-day forecast we had in 1980. If more private players are in the research, this is expected to develop at a faster rate.
But this comes at a cost.
Shutting out data
While government agencies work on the principle of sharing data and helping the public, the private players could monopolise the sector, shut out data from others, and push government agencies out of the industry.
As we are in a stage of a climatic apocalypse, there has been rapid weather changes in the last two decades. This, combined with development in forecast models, leads to an increased commercial interest in the field.
However, if private companies take over the weather forecast industry, it could lead to a two-tier system of data sharing ― more data for countries and organisations that can pay, and less for those who cannot.
When the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) met in Geneva in 2019, they discussed the imminent danger of privatisation of weather forecasts and stressed on the need for collaboration of data, but the participating parties were unsure how long it could continue.
Weather forecast is something that cannot be restricted on the basis of cost. Millions of lives are dependent on weather predictions. You should not be restricted from knowing there will be a storm near your neighbourhood in the next 48 hours.
The private companies get the majority of their data from government agencies.
Although the government should not stop private players from entering the industry, there need to be strict regulations to curb the monopoly of the industry.
There is a layer of a specialised weather forecast that private players could sell at a profit to businesses. But if government agencies are forced out of the industry, private companies will have more autonomy in deciding what and what not should be sold to the public. There should be more effort from the WMO to protect the government agencies and make sure private companies do not sell weather data unethically.