Weathering heights

IF you're as disturbed by this year's lousy weather as I am, may I suggest you consider my theory about the National Weather Service. From the service's creation in 1870 to 1940, the nation experienced some smooth sailing in terms of its weather. The low-water mark came in 1940 when the agency was switched from the Department of Agriculture to the Commerce Department. Business people don't understand heating-degree days or the difference between Fahrenheit and Celsius. The bottom line has nothing to do with wind chill, and the 30-day forecast does not impress unless it sheds light on interest rates.

Ergo, the nation's bad weather and massive foreign trade deficit may be due to this bureaucratic mismatch. The evidence: When meteorologists talk about R&D, other people in the Commerce Department think they mean research and development. In fact, they're discussing rain and drought. Then there was the time when Commerce officials thought that Ltd. involved analyzing competition from British companies. To weather personnel, it stood for lightning, thunder, and downpours.

A flurry for Wall Streeters can be serious, for the brief agitation in stock prices can be downward. But to meteorologists it's just a little snow. Conversely, a windfall for the Weather Service is usually bad news (something blown down by the wind), while for investors it's a welcome delight. And seed money means, to the weather people, purchase of silver iodide crystals for clouds, whereas its meaning is quite different for entrepreneurs - and for that matter, farmers.

During the depression, some believed weather forecasters were the experts on this subject, so the transfer of the weather service to the Commerce Department, at first occluded by other political fronts, became a reality.

I would make the service an independent agency, or transfer it to the Department of State. But that also has drawbacks: The department is situated in Foggy Bottom.

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.

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