Weather forecasts of great value to Americans, survey finds

Close to nine out of 10 adult Americans obtain weather forecasts an average of more than three times each day, a new nationwide survey by scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colo., has found.

The value Americans place on forecasts appears to be far more than the nation spends on public and private weather services. While the authors cautioned that it is difficult to put a dollar figure on the value of forecasts, the survey indicated that households in this country place an average value of 10.5 cents on every weather forecast obtained. This equates to an annual value of $31.5 billion. In comparison, the cost of providing forecasts by government agencies and private companies is $5.1 billion.

The research, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), NCAR’s sponsor, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is published this month in a paper in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.

“This interesting study shows the importance of weather forecasts in people’s lives, and will help scientists develop ways of further increasing forecasts’ value,” says Steve Nelson, program director in NSF’s Division of Atmospheric Sciences, which funded the research.

It is the first comprehensive study of its kind to examine the public’s perceptions, uses, and values of weather forecasts.

U.S. adults obtain an estimated 300 billion forecasts each year, says NCAR scientist and lead paper author Jeffrey Lazo. The study also revealed that most people were generally satisfied with weather forecasts and had fairly high confidence in forecasts with a lead time of one to two days.

“Weather forecasts equate to an enormous volume and multiplicity of information, when you account for the array of forecast providers, communication channels and the size and diversity of the U.S. population,” Lazo says.

Understanding how individuals use day-to-day weather information can help direct the development of more relevant and valuable weather forecasts and warnings by providers like the National Weather Service, he adds. Gaining a better understanding of people’s attitudes and behaviors toward forecasts also provides valuable information to emergency managers.

“Better communication strategies can be developed for hazardous weather like hurricanes, winter storms, and floods,” Lazo says. “Improved understanding will also help forecasters to communicate forecast uncertainty information more effectively.”

The Internet-based survey, conducted in November 2006, collected information about respondents’ weather-related activities and experiences, as well as basic demographic information. Results were extrapolated from 1,465 of the 1,520 individuals who said they used weather forecasts.

A small number, 3.6 percent, did not complete the survey beyond question number one, when they indicated that they did not access or use weather forecasts.

Of the respondents who said they obtain weather forecasts, 87.2 percent reported getting forecasts on average at least once a day, while 9.2 percent responded that they get forecasts once a day or less on average.

Although the number of forecasts an individual obtains varies significantly from day-to-day, depending on factors like weather events and planned daily activities, the researchers found that on average individuals received forecasts 3.8 times a day. These findings, when extrapolated to the total U.S. adult population of 226 million, indicate that Americans receive a yearly total of about 300 billion forecasts.

NCAR associate scientist and coauthor Julie Demuth said the study also revealed people’s curiosity about weather, with 85 percent of respondents saying that more than half the time they obtain forecasts simply to know what the weather will be like. “This tells us that people generally have a high level of interest in weather forecasts, regardless of whether they use this information directly for planning and decision-making,” says Demuth.

Many people use forecasts for planning specific activities, such as vacations, and routine daily activities, such as deciding what to wear and how to get to work or school. The peak periods for accessing forecasts were the early morning, early evening, and late evening hours, says Demuth. Results also showed the most common source for forecast information came from local television stations: 33.7 times per month on average.

Cable television and radio were the next most popular sources. Web pages and newspapers were less common sources overall, but both were a daily or more frequent source of forecasts for 27 percent of respondents.

“We should be doing this type of survey every two to three years so we can see what changes are happening, particularly in how people are using technology like mobile phones and the Internet to receive forecasts,” says Lazo.

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