Like two awkward colleagues stuck in an elevator, John Oliver wanted to talk about the weather. So he devoted Sunday night‘s episode of Last Week Tonight to the National Weather Service. Predicting the weather accurately is a multi-billion dollar industry that can save businesses and lives, which creates a lot of pressure on weathermen. “That is why they snap sometimes,” says Oliver, showing a montage of a weatherman losing it on air.
Whether you get your weather report from the local news or from an app, as Oliver notes, if you live in the U.S. your forecast would not exist without the National Weather Service, which generates a massive amount of data and gives it away, free of charge, to anyone who wants, including private companies. “National Weather Service data is to a weather forecast, what fresh wolverine meat is to Hormel Chili,” Oliver says. “You can’t make one without the other. It’s the dominant ingredient.”
To create all that data, the U.S. works with partners around the globe, which has worked well for the U.S., for instance when European forecast models showed Hurricane Sandy making a direct hit on New York, while U.S. models showed the storm heading out to sea. As Oliver points out, countless lives were saved due to the additional information.
According to Oliver, private weather companies like AccuWeather and Weather Channel can take the National Weather Service data, augment it, and make tailored predictions for specific clients. The relationship between the public and private companies has been mutually beneficial, but Oliver says there are tensions, too. For instance, when the National Weather Service names tropical storms it’s to indicate to the public that they are strengthening and must be taken seriously. But The Weather Channel decided to name winter storms, even though they may not merit the serious attention that hurricanes do.
The biggest issue, though, according to Oliver, is that the private companies want the National Weather Service to do slightly less so that their own services are more valuable. For instance, they even reportedly worked to get a bill passed that would have prevented the National Weather Service from providing daily forecasts or putting content on its website. Luckily the bill failed, Oliver says because, “What you do not want is a pay-walled system of weather where only paying customers can find out if they are about to drive into a tornado.”
Now, that nightmare scenario may be one step closer to reality and the National Weather Service may be under siege. That is because Donald Trump nominated Barry Myers, who at the time of his nomination was the CEO of AccuWeather (a director competitor of the National Weather Service), to be the undersecretary of the National Weather Service. As TIME previously reported, “Myers argued for new limits on what weather information the National Weather Service could release, leaving companies like his own with more control over the forecast, and greater profits. His appointment awaits a vote in the Senate.”
As Oliver asks, “Why? Why not nominate any other guy?”
Correction, Oct. 14
The original version of this story misstated the company that decided to name winter storms. It is The Weather Channel, not AccuWeather.
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