Jim Salinger: Weather teams wasting resources

It's time to end this expensive duplication of climate researchers working for two Crown-owned entities

New Zealand rivers respond extremely rapidly to heavy rainfall, so any delay with weather forecasts is a threat to life and property. Photo / Brett Phibbs
New Zealand rivers respond extremely rapidly to heavy rainfall, so any delay with weather forecasts is a threat to life and property. Photo / Brett Phibbs

The regional councils have to pick up the heavy rainfall forecasts, with a time delay and plug into their own hydrological models... New Zealand's weather and climate research services are increasingly duplicating the same work, at the expense of the taxpayer.

The start of this month marked 21 years since the introduction of our science reforms, making them "come of age". They were instituted by the Minister of Science, Simon Upton.

His vision, to combine "like with like" in science, succeeded in getting scientists that should work together to do so. For example, he combined agricultural research - which was previously dispersed between the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) after a fallout between senior civil servants several decades before.

Weather, climate, hydrological and atmospheric activities were, at the time, spread between the New Zealand Meteorological Services, DSIR and the Ministry of Works and Development.

Under Mr Upton's blueprint all these activities were all supposed to be carried out by National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (Niwa).

Unfortunately, even before Niwa formed, the plan was thwarted by a self-interested Wellington mandarin who convinced a then acting Minister of Transport that weather forecasting was a revenue-generating exercise and should not be consolidated with Niwa. So in 1992 the NZ Met Service was kept separate from Niwa and, despite a couple of subsequent reviews recommending the two Crown-owned companies merge, they haven't done so.

This has been to the cost of taxpayers both monetarily and in services provided. Given they were both largely funded by government-sourced money, one would expect co-operation. Instead, the two entities began competing to provide New Zealanders with the same services.

The developing cold front between Niwa and the Met Service culminated in 2007 when the Government appointed a mediator to sort out their behind-closed-doors dispute.

The mediation followed concerns that a lack of co-operation was damaging the country's overall weather forecasting capacity, and a review in 2006 called for the two organisations to merge.

The review recommended the introduction of new national weather objectives, including improved forecasting of severe events such as floods and snowstorms.

At the eye of the storm was New Zealand's first weather supercomputer, bought in 1999 to further Niwa's scientific work and boosted in 2004 to four times its original capacity. It was christened Kupe to recognise the spirit of scientific discovery in which it was purchased.

Niwa scientists developed their new weather forecasting model on that computer, one which some say enables faster, more reliable warning of extreme weather events. The trouble is, under an iron-clad contract with the Ministry of Transport, that's Met Service's job - and they could not access the Niwa information.

Niwa's former head Paul Hargreaves said the dispute had resulted in new early flood-warning technology going unused. The Met Service then said it was the role of regional councils to predict floods, then questioned the technology's efficacy. The regional councils only have access to the Niwa information if they pay for it. Some can afford to, some cannot.

At that time, the late weather forecaster Augie Auer accused Niwa - whom he criticised for "stretching its boundaries" - of planning to grab the lucrative government contract for severe weather and marine forecasting and said the Met Service would naturally resist.

Mr Auer argued that it was all driven by the need to make profits and Niwa would be seeking to recover some of the costs of developing its detailed computer models. He wondered if the Met Service might also be under pressure from Treasury to account for its performance, suspecting slipping standards and hinted at some "interesting personalities" in the two organisations.

The subsequent 2007 government strategic review concluded the two organisations should endeavour to optimise benefits in the national good and public interest of New Zealand. Both agreed that these were: Enhanced safety and well-being of New Zealanders, protection of property and infrastructure, and economic benefit to the nation, through reliable forecasting of weather, climate and associated environmental events and impacts.

This was agreed and signed off by the Met Service and Niwa boards.

They were to work towards enhancing the benefit to New Zealand Inc of their activities. And in November 2007 then Science Minister Pete Hodgson announced Met Service and Niwa had signed an official agreement to work more closely together on forecasting New Zealand's weather, climate and associated environmental events. "Accurate information about our weather and environment is vital to New Zealanders, especially given that climate change is one of the most pressing issues of our generation," he said.

In Australia, the United States and France, weather, climate and hydrological research and services are in one government agency. When severe weather is forecast, the heavy rainfall predictions from the numerical weather prediction models are used directly by the hydrological models to predict floods in the river catchments.

Unfortunately in New Zealand, the regional councils have to pick up the heavy rainfall forecasts, with a time delay and plug into their own hydrological models, which vary in quality, depending on what they can afford.

All of this when they could be using models provided by the combined might of Niwa and the Met Service. Our rivers respond extremely rapidly to heavy rainfall, so any delay is a threat to life and property.

Now this year, at a time when weather, climate and hydrological research and services are totally integrated in many other countries for the public good, relationships appear to be breaking down yet again.

Niwa has a satellite receiver in eastern Wellington and the Met Service has recently duplicated this with another, almost identical satellite receiver at Kelburn - all from public monies. Both institutions run numerical weather prediction models they both separately purchased from the UK Meteorological Office, and Niwa is advertising for meteorologists in Auckland. These are both examples of a service they could provide jointly.

Niwa provided a state-of-the-art weather forecasting service for the Fieldays at Mystery Creek in June, an activity that Met Service should be doing. Now Niwa has started a new web-based weather forecasting and information subscription service. And both companies collect weather and climate data funded by the public purse through separate networks, which is not all shared. Universities are also finding that access to weather and climate data for sound research is being restricted.

Unfortunately this silliness continues at a time when the Government is combining like with like, and at a time when there is pressure on the public purse. This anomaly perpetuated by self-interest should be called to a halt.

I propose that the Government seriously consider combining the two organisations - as was suggested in the original blueprint 21 years ago.

This would allow the nonsense to stop and prediction of weather and climate extreme events such as heatwaves, freezes, severe snowstorms, floods and droughts and other natural weather and climate disasters to improve, at a lower cost to the taxpayer.

New Zealand is a small country and we can ill afford the ridiculous duplication of some expensive resources across two Crown-owned entities that are competing.


Jim Salinger is an Auckland Climate Scientist and 2012 Lorrey Lokey Visiting Professor, Stanford University.

- NZ Herald

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