Nothing like an outbreak of tornadoes focuses the imagination on the importance of weather forecasts. Storms in the past week raked Ohio, Indiana, Kansas and Missouri. At least 10 are dead, and judging by images of destroyed homes and buildings from those states, that number easily could have been much higher.

A major reason it wasn’t is weather forecasting. Today’s technology enables meteorologists to do what they couldn’t a generation ago, and that is predict severe weather for specific areas days ahead of time. When storms do develop on spring and summer afternoons, people in their paths can get specific updates about location and timing. This is especially true for major storms, such as hurricanes.

Good information — which allows people to plan, get out of the way, and take cover — saves lives.

The wonders of weather science are top of mind because of a forecast of a different sort from some of the country’s leading predictors: They fear the use of public radio waves for the fifth generation of wireless technology will interfere with sensors on the country’s weather satellites, limiting their effectiveness. Their primary concern is the ability to predict and monitor ocean storms, because the sensors in question collect data related to water vapor in the atmosphere, on the ground and at sea.

Theirs is an unsettling prediction that has drawn scoffing and some dispute from parts of the wireless industry, which is spending vast sums to lay claim to radio bands for 5G technology. Less dismissive are NASA, the Department of Defense and members of both parties in Congress.

Neil Jacobs, acting head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, detailed concerns for the House Subcommittee on the Environment last week. The satellite sensors measure microwaves emitted by water at 23.8 gigahertz. Just this week, the Federal Communications Commission auctioned the 24-gigahertz band for wireless development (raising more than $2 billion in the process, which shows the economic importance of this development). The sticking point is potential interference from that wireless data.

Jacobs said that interference could “degrade forecast skill by up to 30%,” according to an account of his testimony reported by the News Herald of Panama City, Florida. “If you look back in time to see when our forecast skill was roughly 30% less than what it is today, that’s somewhere around the 1980s. This would result in the reduction of the hurricane track forecast time by roughly two to three days.”

This would’ve set back the forecast of Hurricane Sandy, for example, which delivered a costly, deadly blow to the Bahamas and northeastern U.S. in the fall of 2012.

Jacobs says there is a solution that involves regulating the use of the 24-gigahertz band more aggressively than is now planned by the FCC. As of yet, however, there is no consensus among the FCC, NASA and NOAA on how to do that.

Again, you don't have to stretch your imagination far to understand the stakes of this discussion for communities such as ours on or near the coast. Accurate weather forecasts are important for all of us as far as planning for the weekend goes, but they are critical for our local economy and indeed our safety.

No one wants to impede the development of 5G technology, with its promise of superior upload and download speeds. A far faster network will accelerate technology and our economy, to say nothing for the time it takes your iPhone to buffer highlights from the Bruins game.

Ensuring accurate weather forecasts is paramount, however. Just think of the costs of Hurricane Sandy, a Category 1 storm just before its landfall in New Jersey, and its $65 billion worth of destruction.

The FCC must recognize these concerns, and their implication for lives and property, and ensure that new 5G networks do not inhibit accurate and timely weather forecasts.

Recommended for you