Safer Storms in the Information Age
Severe weather continues to wreak havoc in America, but industry is reengineering systems they developed decades ago for the Defense Department to provide timely weather data that can limit losses
The March 1993 "Storm of the Century" killed more than 160 people and caused $6 billion in damages from the Gulf Coast to New England.
During the summer of the same year, the worst flooding in centuries caused $15 billion in damages to communities across the upper Mississippi and lower Missouri river valleys.
Hurricane Andrew, which hit south Florida in 1992 created some $17 billion in losses for the insurance industry, drove lumber prices up in the housing market and tested the resources of state and national relief agencies.
It's ridiculous to blame the weather man for these disasters, but after years of wrong predictions, weather forecasts are often thought of as more fable than fact -- and people sometimes ignore warnings about approaching storms. Therefore, the first move toward minimizing the impact of severe weather must be to improve weather information, a task today's technology promises to meet.
"There's been a cry for years that there isn't enough good data for forecasters to predict small storms," said Gene Benuzzi, account manager for government weather programs at PRC in McLean, Va. But now the technology is available to capture new information that can identify growing storms and warn about local weather, Benuzzi said. With the ability to monitor even small weather events, the market for weather information is heating up.
A stormy market heats up
Weather information is a hot commodity these days and both the public and private sectors are using technologies to improve the quantity and quality of weather information for builders, truckers, farmers, airlines, utility operators and for any other industry where weather is an important factor in the corporate bottom line.
With its storms, floods, hurricanes and tornadoes, the United States experiences some of the most severe weather in the world. A typical year brings some 10,000 violent thunderstorms, 5,000 floods, 1,000 tornadoes and several hurricanes to America's shores, according to the National Weather Service. These events -- along with periods of severe drought, hard winters and heat waves -- translate into considerable loss of life and annual property damages estimated in billions of dollars. Insurance companies aren't the only ones who pay for the destruction.
American businesses suffer from weather phenomena, especially when storms and other weather events take them by surprise. Construction companies, for instance, risk millions if they lay the foundation of a building and are interrupted by a sudden downpour. While all the technology in the world won't stop severe weather, most agree that knowing about approaching inclement weather can help reduce losses because businesses can prepare for the worst.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Weather Service is trying to improve weather forecasting by updating its 1950s technologies with a $4.4 billion modernization project. Louis Boezi, the National Weather Service's deputy assistant administrator, said the service's modernization is not only providing a direct market for big companies to sell their weather products, but will also spur new business opportunities for small companies, especially software vendors that can transform raw weather service data into a format that can be used by businesses, emergency workers, or even recreational boaters.
"Sophisticated information technologies are helping the National Weather Service create a tremendous amount of new raw weather data, which private companies can add value to and sell to those who need specialized weather information," Boezi said.
In addition to the new weather information the modernization will make available, another factor driving the weather information technology market is the ability to get the information to the end user, especially via the Internet, said Barbara Levine, vice president of Newton, Mass.-based KTAADN Inc., a small defense contractor that's using neural networks to predict where lightning will strike. With electronic transmission of data, it's possible to automatically warn emergency management centers of possible storms, instead of depending on a weather service employee to telephone offices in the path of a storm.
Over the past two decades, the market for providing weather information technologies and data has hovered around the $200 million per year mark, with about 150 small companies picking up the majority of business, Boezi said. But as society continues to bring computers into its homes and businesses, the market potential is enticing large companies into the marketplace, especially traditional defense contractors such as PRC, New York-based Loral, Reading, Mass.-based The Analytic Sciences Corp. and Melbourne, Fla.-based Harris Corp.
These companies and other defense giants are not only leading the United States in weather information technologies, but are actually in the forefront of the worldwide marketplace, especially in the observing and processing capabilities, according to PRC's Benuzzi.
"America's on top because the private sector designs the technologies," unlike in Germany, the United Kingdom, France and other nations where their weather services develop the technologies, Benuzzi said. In the U.S., companies are reengineering systems they developed decades ago for the Defense Department and are deploying them to track weather phenomena for this new market, he said.
With industry leading the way with the technology, the government's modernization of the National Weather Service has been a boon for companies to try out their technologies in the weather market.
Putting new technologies in place
The ongoing $4.4 billion weather modernization project, set to be in place next year, seeks to upgrade the service's radar based on 1940s vacuum-tube technologies. There are four technology components to the service's new information-gathering and dissemination system, three of which create new weather information.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's new generation of weather satellites is the first part of the modernization to be up and running. Satellites GOES 8 and 9, built by Space Systems Loral, are now sending back detailed imagery that provide forecasters with critical advance information about hurricanes, thunderstorms, flash floods and other severe weather.
Another new source of weather information is coming from automated surface observing systems, which are units that continuously monitor weather characteristics, such as humidity, wind speed and direction, visibility and cloud heights. The ASOS network is supposed to work non-stop, updating observations every minute, 24 hours a day, every day of the year. However, a General Accounting Office report submitted to Congress earlier this year said the ASOS monitors weren't reliably measuring rainfall and some of the data was being lost. The weather service says it's correcting this problem.
The third information-gathering arm of the modernization is the installation of Doppler radar, which was developed by a subsidiary of McLean, Va.-based Unisys, a unit now owned by Loral. Doppler radar detects precipitation 280 miles away, measures in detail the speed and direction of winds 140 miles away, and provides insight into storm behavior that lets forecasters predict the weather with unprecedented accuracy.
About 120 new radar systems are working in the U.S. now, and one in Sterling, Va., has already proved its economic viability. Thanks to Doppler radar, the government saved $43 million when the Office of Personnel Management used the radar data to determine that a pending February 1993 snowstorm was not severe enough to send federal workers home.
The data gathered by new satellites, combined with data from the ASOS units and the Doppler radar will help forecasters provide better advance warnings of severe weather, which will save lives, preserve property, and benefit agriculture, marine, aviation and commercial interests across the country. But the key step between data collection and using the information to limit losses lies in an information system that can handle the heavy data load. PRC is working on this final component, dubbed the Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System, or AWIPS.
PRC, an $883 million subsidiary of the Black & Decker Corp., is updating the computer and communications systems that support the National Weather Service. AWIPS is the core computer system to acquire, process and distribute all weather information and the first three of the 140 total units will be delivered "very soon," Boezi said.
But the whole modernization could encounter delays if certain budget threats are carried out by the Republican Congress. A House resolution has proposed to fund NOAA at $1.705 billion in fiscal 1996, which is 22 percent less than what the Clinton administration asked for and 15 percent less than the $2 billion appropriated this year. Another proposal would completely eliminate NOAA's parent, the Commerce Department. But even if this happens, Boezi said he doesn't expect too much to change at his agency "because people still need weather forecasts."
Commercial weather infotech
In addition to the government market for weather information technologies, companies are also finding a receptive commercial marketplace. PRC, for instance, has already moved into the private weather infotech business by providing meteorological analysis and display systems to support The Weather Channel, the only 24-hour weather network, seen in almost 58 million homes nationally.
Another company, Newton, Mass.-
based KTAADN, is planning to sell a commercial version of its lightning-prediction technology. The company developed this product and other weather forecasting capabilities using neural network technology designed for several government agencies, including the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization and NASA. Utilities and airlines are two obvious customer markets for the company's weather products, KTAADN's Levine said.
Also, companies are increasingly making a business by taking raw data provided by the weather service and turning it into new products directed at niche markets, such as port authorities, commodities dealers, highway departments, construction companies and ski resorts. One of the largest information providers is State College, Pa.-based AccuWeather, which creates forecasts for some 500 radio, TV and newspaper outlets, as well as for Prodigy and CompuServe online services.
As more weather information becomes available electronically, it will become increasingly user-specific. Perhaps one day TV weather personality Willard Scott will be replaced with an online service that transmits a personalized weather forecast each morning to tell you if you'll need to bring an umbrella to the office.