Maverick NIWA muscles in on MetService turf

Hills? Clouds? Ocean? — from MetService website

A curious climate scandal was raised this week by one of our long-time favourite readers, biologist Dr Maggy Wassilieff (here is her comment).

Maggy reports on an article in the Sunday Star-Times by Paul Gorman, who describes the extraordinary duplication of national weather forecasting by both the MetService and the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA), both Crown Research Institutes (CRI).

As an aside, I must say how pleased I am to see a Stuff journalist inquiring into matters of climate—truly exciting, like spotting a unicorn.

Stuff makes the astonishing discovery (that turns out to be a rediscovery) that the duplication of effort is caused by NIWA moving into the territory of a sister CRI without permission.

A Stuff investigation into how New Zealand has ended up with two state-owned forecasting companies has discovered official approval was never given to NIWA, which focuses more on climate, to develop a weather forecasting service.

Stuff spoke to former Revenue Minister Peter Dunne, who said:

… the situation was “absurd”. One state enterprise setting out to compete directly with another was probably without precedent and still is.

According to Labour MP Clare Curran, MetService is the official forecaster for New Zealand, recognised by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) as the weather authority for New Zealand’s civil emergency events.

NIWA had no authority to take highly profitable work away from MetService and continues to poach valuable business without authority from the Crown.

History

In a Herald article of July 2013, Jim Salinger said it was “time to end this expensive duplication of climate researchers working for two Crown-owned entities.”

In the Stuff article, the Minister of Research, Science and Innovation, Dr Megan Woods, says: “NIWA has provided weather services alongside MetService since 2005.” But in the same story, NIWA adds 13 years to that, claiming to have “been involved in weather forecasting” since its establishment during Simon Upton’s science reforms in 1992, 27 years ago.

Environmental scientist Dr Murray Boardman told Stuff, “NIWA does think of itself as the pre-eminent CRI. The problem is that successive ministers in New Zealand have not had the fortitude to stand up to NIWA.”

No other nation would fund two organisations providing identical services from the public purse, yet we’ve been doing it for nearly 30 years.

Under Mr Upton’s blueprint, weather, climate, hydrological and atmospheric science were to be carried out by the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA). But, as Salinger explains:

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.

Salinger gives a good description of the overlap between NIWA and the MetService:

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.

So splitting scientific endeavours not only wastes money and resources, but consequent delays in presenting the data are potentially lethal.

This was officially investigated two years ago

WeatherWatch posted a story in January 2018 saying they welcomed the prospect of “more sunlight and transparency” on the MetService/NIWA agency double-up, since NIWA continually refuse to comment (we’ve seen a lot of that behaviour from NIWA).

Less than a week since the New Zealand Government released an independent review that says New Zealand has the most expensive and restrictive access to tax-owned weather data in the world (through both NIWA and MetService) Minister of Research, Science and Innovation Dr Megan Woods has announced she is now also looking into the double-up of state-owned forecasters operating in the same space.

But wait, there’s more.

Buying new super-computers – twice

In the last 15 years, NIWA has purchased two super-computers to perform these unauthorised weather forecasts. They’re a pseudo-limited company with Crown privileges and undoubtedly their own resources, but in addition they receive over $120 million in Crown funds annually, so will they disclose the amount of taxpayer funds they spent and still spend on weather forecasts, including these amazing computers?

August 2009

NIWA Chief Executive John Morgan says that the new IBM Power 575 supercomputer and its supporting infrastructure will cost $12.7 million and is one of the most significant single investments in science in New Zealand. NIWA’s new supercomputer will be the most powerful climate research supercomputer in the Southern Hemisphere. The new supercomputer has one hundred times the computational power of NIWA’s current supercomputer and five hundred times the storage.

Note the language in this NIWA puff piece, just four years after muscling in on MetService territory. Nobody would know this has anything to do with weather forecasts, since it’s all about “climate research.” They mention “environmental forecasting,” “investments in science,” “most powerful climate research supercomputer in the Southern Hemisphere,” “climate-sensitive” industries (no, it’s actually weather they’re sensitive to, you can’t feel the climate), improving “early warnings of the effects of severe events” (more weather events, obviously), and “severe weather-related events.”

They blatantly pretend this is all about “climate”, not weather forecasting, and of course there’s no competition with the MetService.

But then…

Just nine years later they think they’re home safe so they spend over 40% more on yet another super-computer and boast openly that it’s going to revolutionise weather forecasting, all pretence abandoned:

May 2018

NIWA is about to go live with its new 18 million dollar supercomputer tasked with revolutionising weather forecasting. The Cray XC50 is three huge computers built especially for NIWA by the Seattle-based global supercomputer maker, Cray. NIWA’s current supercomputer, FitzRoy, has reached the end of its operating life and cannot keep up with demand. The new model is one of the most advanced supercomputers in the country. NIWA’s general manager of research, Dr Rob Murdoch, explains how the new computer will change the way NIWA crunches data, and especially how much more precisely it will predict weather events.

This is not rocket science. Our Coalition Government just needs the backbone to bring to heel the inflated egos running NIWA’s maverick weather forecasting service, stop them engaging in unauthorised business and pass the assets over to MetService, as Simon Upton intended in the first place.

But I find it odd that Salinger now turns on NIWA.

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