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Outlook is sunny for Maryland’s growing weather industry

by Ben Mook

BALTIMORE, MD -- For most people, the weather forecast lets them know whether to wear a sweater or pack an umbrella, but that information can be just as important to major retailers trying to gauge spending habits and planning for what to buy.

“People make a forecast for themselves every single day and put that information into context,” said Robert S. Marshall, co-founder and CEO of Germantown-based AWS Convergence Technologies Inc., which operates the popular WeatherBug brand of forecasting tools. “Businesses are the same way: Weather has a profound impact on them in many ways, and having that knowledge can increase their bottom line.”

A wide array of businesses routinely turn to private meteorologists and weather consultants to help manage risks, gain an upper hand on the competition or help with strategic planning. The National Council of Industrial Meteorologists, a trade association, estimates that the private sector accounts for as much as 50 percent of the nation's meteorological work force.

With the National Weather Service located in Montgomery County, a number of companies, from larger firms like WeatherBug to smaller one- and two-person outfits, are also in the state. And, not far away is State College, Pa., which boasts more meteorologists per capita than anywhere in the country, as it is home to AccuWeather Inc.

Commercial weather companies, whether they are risk consultants, private meteorologists or other specialists, do things like provide energy utilities with predictions about extended hot or cold spells coming down the road and letting local government emergency managers know about the potential for damaging events like hurricanes and tornadoes. Insurance companies turn to consultants to see if accidents that seemed to be weather-related actually were, given the conditions at the time.

“There are some consultants who do strictly forecasting, while others look at environmental issues like air pollution and others focus strictly on the forensic legal field and work with law firms,” said Kit Wagner, a meteorologist and spokesman for the National Council of Industrial Meteorologists, in Norman, Okla. “Then, there’s everything in between.”

Meteorologist Tim Hall saw the potential in the private weather industry and started Walkersville-based Weather Sleuth LLC this summer. The company, which he operates part time, specializes in forensic meteorology, energy meteorology, agricultural meteorology, air quality, space weather and climatology. He said people are surprised how broad a reach weather information has across different industries.

While there is no consensus on how big the commercial weather industry is, one 2001 study estimated that around $2.2 trillion of the economy is affected annually by weather- and climate-related events.

“You’ll find people looking for information even in places you might not think of, like retailers,” Hall said. “They may lose a lot of money if they emphasize something like heavy coats and it’s not that cold.”

In one example, Berwyn, Pa.-based weather business consultant Planalytics Inc. makes predictions of retail activity based on projected weather conditions. The company, whose clients include Kohl’s, Starbucks and Levi Strauss & Co., predicts that the weather will contribute to a 2 percent increase in both retail and restaurant traffic this holiday shopping season and will spark an increase in spending this month on boots and sweaters.

“The private sector for this is very, very large,” said Steven A. Root, president of the American Weather and Climate Industry Association. “The private sector has a wealth of information available through exchanges with the National Weather Service, and they use it to do consulting for just about everything. It’s just exhausting the things they do.”

The bulk of the information used by the private sector comes from the National Weather Service, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which collects and analyzes forecast information. Like the U.S. Census and similar government entities, its information is then shared with the private sector.

“The people, the taxpayers, own the fruits of government’s labor, and the information is an asset,” said Edward R. Johnson, director of strategic planning and policy for the National Weather Service. “The taxpayers paid for it and own it, and the government should make that information available at little to no cost.”

Some companies, like WeatherBug, augment NWS data with information collected from their own networks of weather stations across the country. Marshall said WeatherBug then distills that information for its more than 45 million online, mobile and business customers.

“We ingest National Weather Service data that is available — all weather companies do that,” Marshall said. “Then we layer in proprietary information, and that’s where we provide value.”

Power forecasting

One of the biggest consumers of that specialized weather information is the energy industry. Joel Widenor is the co-founder of Bethesda-based Commodity Weather Group LLC. The firm specializes in working with energy utilities and brokers that need short- and long-term weather information to enhance their ability to trade energy on the open market.

“They’re looking for advance notice so they have a heads-up about what’s coming up,” said Widenor, who is a meteorologist. “Knowing that is a big deal for energy and agricultural industries.”

The biggest consumer of WeatherBug’s forecasting information is the general public, which accesses the information through the Internet or on cell phones. But the commercial side of WeatherBug’s operations now accounts for almost half of its business, Marshall said.

“The energy sector is a very big customer for us,” Marshall said. “They use that information about weather on the trading floor when they’re buying and selling electricity and determining what the heating and cooling impact will be on the grid.”

Marshall said the energy industry is also where his company is looking to see growth in the coming years. He said one of WeatherBug’s next big pushes will be to integrate weather technology into smart grid initiatives.

Another niche that consultants are called upon to help with is forecasting marine weather.

Oceanographer Jenifer Clark started her business, Jenifer’s Gulfstream, in 1995 along with her husband, Dane, a meteorologist. The couple’s specialty is planning ocean routes for sailors and boaters, whether it’s at a race or regatta or just an annual migration to warmer climes. While she maps out the ocean currents for a trip, he will chart potential weather conditions along the route.

“We fit together like a hand and glove,” Clark said. “I can’t imagine us doing anything else.”

In addition to the routing business, Clark and her husband have been called into court as expert witnesses in cases dealing with marine weather.

On the stand

And that’s another field for private meteorologists. Instead of forecasting, weather experts sometimes are called upon to look backward in what is called forensic meteorology. Called in as experts, the weather specialists can testify or prepare reports that can be used as testimony for insurance claims, snowfall disputes and other types of litigation.

“You could be called up to testify as to what the angle of the sun was at the time of an accident,” Hall said. “You would then pull up the data and verify or dispute what has been said. It can be a lot of fun if you like solving puzzles.”

In one case, Dane and Jenifer Clark were called to testify for a lawsuit involving the Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Dawn. The ship was hit by rogue waves off Charleston, S.C., in April 2005 en route to New York. The couple testified as to the weather and oceanic conditions that could have contributed to the damage to the ship and injuries to some passengers.

“We must have been in depositions for that case for like a day and half,” Dane Clark said.

Private forecasters can also find themselves called in to help school systems. WeatherBug has a network of 8,000 schools that use its weather stations, with member schools receiving severe-weather alerts.

Agricultural forecasting is another segment that relies on private forecasters. But, it’s not always farmers who are looking to buy information. Investors will use predictions of early frosts, drought conditions and hot spells to buy and sell on the commodity market for crop futures. There is also the buying and selling of “weather derivatives,” which makes weather a tradable commodity.

But, whatever field the consultants find themselves in, they face the same scrutiny weather forecasters always have.

“The key is still being correct,” Widenor said, “and in our business it boils down to being correct as often as you can.”

© Dolan Media Newswires 2010.


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