U.S. infrastructure overall gets a D+. What grade would you give U.S. weather infrastructure?

This morning’s print edition of the Washington Post contains a piece by Ashley Halsey III entitled U.S. infrastructure gets D-plus in report; you can find the full text of his article online here. A few snippets:

“The report card by the American Society of Civil Engineers showed the national infrastructure a single grade above failure, a step from declining to the point where everyday things simply stop working the way people expect them to…

…Using ratings by civil engineers in every state, the ASCE gave the national infrastructure an overall grade of D-plus, an average pulled down by some of the biggest problem areas — aviation, drinking-water supply, roads, transit and sewage treatment.

 Restoring it all to good working order will require an investment of $3.6 trillion by 2020, the ASCE concluded, and if the current level of spending continues it will fall short of that figure by $1.6 trillion. The call for vast new investment comes in an era of national austerity, and with a major source of infrastructure funding on the brink of bankruptcy…”

The ASCE assessment raises several issues, but for now let’s focus on a question:

The ASCE report doesn’t include a category for the nation’s Earth observations, science, and services as critical infrastructure.  It should. Public safety in the face of drought and flood, hurricanes, tornadoes, winter storms and other weather hazards depends on it. Commercial airlines don’t fly without weather guidance. Agribusiness, electrical utilities, traffic and water resource managers all depend upon weather information. Suppose national weather services were to grind to a halt. Weather-related fatalities and injuries might be 10-100 greater than today. Economic losses would be many tens of billions of dollars annually.

What if the ASCE were to add this needed additional category? What grade would the United States earn? Here are a few data points to help you decide:

Weather Satellites. Congress’ Government Accountability Office 2013 High-risk report adds both the U.S. polar-orbiting  and geostationary satellite programs. In the GAO view, the risk of service disruption over the next ten years is unacceptably high.

Weather radar. The nation’s weather radar network is nearly 30 years old, and based on 40-year-old technology. Radar mechanical equipment is increasingly in need of maintenance. Newer technology, if implemented, could provide a better look at dangerous storms and improve the specificity of warnings.

Surface observations. The NWS surface observational network is sparse and aging; it lacks low-altitude profiling capability. Many private-sector networks exist; in fact they dwarf the NWS system. But users lack the means to access the potentially richer information set for lack of suitable public-private coordinating mechanisms.

Computing power. European governments supply European-Center modelers eight times the computing power the U.S. NWS National Centers for Environmental Prediction command, even though the European system is only called upon to generate one-tenth the number of forecast products. As a result, the European numerical weather prediction models can be run at finer spatial and temporal resolution, with forecast improvements to match.

Sequestration and furloughs. The level, continuity, and long-term stability of government funding for the NWS have all been compromised by the federal sequestration, intermittent threats of government shutdowns, and partisan squabbles. It’s not just the hardware. NWS professional staffing and related contractor employment are suffering from the cuts.

Hmm.

Translating all that into a single score is clearly subjective, but in a society accustomed to grading on a curve it’s hard to imagine giving Earth observations, science, and services… weather, water, and climate infrastructure… a rating higher than the D+ given to infrastructure of every other type.  

Three final observations.

First, in a companion piece also in the Washington Post, Brad Plumer, reading the same ASCE report, notes Good news! America’s infrastructure is now 5% less shoddy. According to Mr. Plumer, while dams, drinking-water-delivery, and inland waterways remain problematic (significantly, all water-resource-related issues), America’s infrastructure has seen small gains in rail and roads. By contrast, Earth observations, science, and services infrastructure is headed in the other direction. It’s not receiving the attention given to its more visible counterparts.

Second, it wouldn’t take much additional investment to turn this around. A $15B infusion would make a big difference in U.S. weather, water, and climate critical infrastructure. That’s 1% of the $1.6T additional investment ASCE says is needed in U.S. infrastructure overall… well within the uncertainties in their estimates.

Third, it’s perhaps time that we start realizing that the nation also has a policy infrastructure, and that policy infrastructure, like its road-, electrical-, communication-, and other counterparts, is critical.

We count on electrical power to be available 24/7 at the outlet. We depend on copious amounts of cheap, potable water at the tap. In the same way, we rely on our elected officials, regardless of party persuasion, to maintain the policies needed to ensure the continuing viability of such critical infrastructure. That critical policy contribution takes several forms: the funding levels for needed public capital investment; the attention to continuing R&D to handle growing demands; the regulatory structure that protects the consumer and the private-sector providers and supports healthy levels of competition; the policy stability needed to foster private-sector long-term capital investment, and more. Our poor U.S. infrastructure score can’t be blamed on American workers… the highway crews and the railmen, those laying water and sewage pipe and fiber optics cable, those actually dredging the inland waterways, the bench NWS weather forecasters. The root cause is the governing policy framework, and the elected officials who craft it (or fail to do so).

Based on recent performance, that policy infrastructure could stand a little examination and improvement.

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