Note: This was an essay for a seminar. I thought it turned out pretty well, though, so I’m putting it online too.
The issue of the proper role of government is an extremely controversial—and often emotional—topic in the United States today. Lines are drawn and sides are staked out, with people on both sides often taking a hard-line principled stance, looking only at resources supporting their own position, and applying their principled belief no matter what the circumstance. Over the past thirty years, this overarching debate has come to include a governmental agency whose function had not been questioned previously: the National Weather Service. Since 1983, the idea of cutting taxpayer funding for the National Weather Service and related agencies, and turning over their operations to private companies, has periodically surfaced. The proposal has taken two primary forms: the suggestion of cutting funding for forecasting operations with the expectation that private firms would take over the task, and the suggestion of selling weather satellites or other sources of weather data to the highest bidder and buying back the data that the sources generated.
History of the National Weather Service
The National Weather Service (NWS) originated after the American Civil War with the advent of a national telegraph system. For the first time, weather observations could be transmitted immediately. The science of meteorology had also advanced to the point that scientists studying the atmosphere knew that they would need observations from a broad geographical area in order to apply physical principles and produce a weather forecast, and the new technology had finally made this possible. In 1870, President Grant signed a bill of Congress authorizing the creation of a government agency to collect these observations from official stations and issue notice to downstream areas about incoming storms. The agency was initially part of the Department of War (now named the Department of Defense), but late in 1890, it was moved to the Department of Agriculture, a civilian agency, and renamed the Weather Bureau.
Throughout the twentieth century, the Weather Bureau steadily improved its forecasting capabilities with the addition of new technologies for gathering data and a continuous refinement of its numerical weather prediction tools. The invention of the computer in the 1940s provided an obvious opportunity, and in 1950, the first computer was, in fact, used to produce the first computer-generated weather forecast. In 1954, an inter-agency group of specialists formed the Joint Numerical Weather Prediction Unit, which processed weather observations from ground stations and began to generate basic forecasts on the computer. Radar made its mark on the government’s weather-related agencies in the 1950s as well, and in 1960, the launch of the first weather satellite provided a source of observations from far above the troposphere. In 1970, in the 100th year after its formation, the Weather Bureau—which had been moved to the Department of Commerce five years earlier in recognition of the profound impact of weather on commerce—became known as the National Weather Service.