Floridians were relieved when computer models predicted a mass of dry air was moving toward the state, essentially steering Category 5 Hurricane Dorian away from the U.S. East Coast.
That Saturday morning forecast was still holding up four days later as Dorian passed us by on its way up the Atlantic Seaboard after wreaking havoc in The Bahamas.
Are we prepared to trade that kind of forecast accuracy for faster Instagram posts?
That could be the digital deal with the devil if bureaucrats and Big Telecom continue plowing ahead with their dreams of a hyperfast 5G wireless network in its current form.
5G wireless will use frequencies that are very close to the faint signal emitted by water vapor in the atmosphere. American and European satellites read those water vapor signals and brainy forecasters use them to help create those spaghetti models we obsess over when a hurricane is on the prowl.
If that 5G noise bleeds over into the water vapor frequency, the satellite readings could become garbage, and the forecasting less reliable.
Last month, The Seattle Times reported that a briefing paper from Northrop Grumman, which developed water vapor sensors for satellites, warned that measurements “can be ‘contaminated’ by even slight noise into the band.”
“Instead of giving a seven-day forecast, you’re going to get a two- or three-day weather forecast,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in April at a town hall.
Neil Jacobs, the acting head of NOAA, told Congress in May that the current scheme for a nationwide 5G network would make hurricane forecasting 30% less reliable, transporting forecasting skill back in time to when Jimmy Carter was president. Jacobs warned that the lead time where forecasters could predict a hurricane’s movement would be reduced by a couple of days.
To illustrate the danger, Jacobs told House members that — without good satellite data because of 5G interference — a reliable European computer model would have forecast 2012’s Superstorm Sandy to remain at sea instead of making landfall in New Jersey.
The reduced accuracy would affect all manner of forecasts, not just hurricanes, according to scientists. For example, farmers rely on weather forecasts to make decisions about planting, irrigating and fertilizing crops.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai (a lawyer, not a scientist) waves off the forecasting concerns, saying everything’s going to be fine and complaining that these concerns should have been raised sooner.
Last spring, Pai ignored appeals from Bridenstine and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to delay an auction of frequencies that companies including Verizon and AT&T will use to build 5G networks.
Those companies stand to make billions, and Pai appears hellbent on accommodating their wishes and those of President Donald Trump, who has gushed about 5G on Twitter and characterized it as a type of digital space race with other nations.
5G is expected to not only speed up wireless device downloads and reduce response times (known as latency) but also create new possibilities for self-driving cars, robots and games.
In some places, the system will require a vast network of minitowers to carry and process signals. The state of Florida is so eager that it’s passing laws to stop local governments from getting in the way of companies installing the equipment they’ll need to build the network. For example, the state passed a law earlier this year that prohibits cities or counties from charging fees to companies using public utility poles for 5G equipment and places numerous other limits on a local government’s ability to regulate such work.
We get the eagerness of telecom companies — they stand to make fortunes from 5G. We also understand the 5G eagerness of everyone from businesses to government to gamers.
What we don’t understand is why — considering the lives and property at stake — the risks to accurate weather forecasting aren’t being treated with more gravity and urgency by everyone in the federal government, especially the FCC.
The debate is so hot the National Academy of Sciences canceled a July workshop about the implications of 5G on forecasting, explaining in a statement that “many of the people most knowledgeable about the topic were understandably reluctant to participate.”
NOAA’s Jacobs and others have suggested that limiting the power of transmitters would protect forecasting capabilities, which seems like a reasonable solution. It shouldn’t be so hard for these competing interests to figure out a sweet spot for 5G power levels that will serve the economy and keep the public safe.
Florida’s congressional delegation also can’t just sit this one out. They need to weigh in on behalf of constituents, all of whom need to know where hurricanes are going and where they’ll strike.
We take little comfort in watching federal agencies fuss over something as important as public safety versus economic growth. They need to reach an agreement, one that places public safety first.
Having just held our breath at Dorian’s dangerous approach, accurate hurricane forecasting seems more important to us than faster YouTube downloads.