by Mark Hoekzema — This article originally appeared in the March/April 2018 issue of FMJ
Adverse weather has far-flung impacts across the world, including effects on the global economy, public health and infrastructure, not to mention human life. A 2015 report found1 that weather caused 90 percent of global disasters and injured or adversely impacted 4.1 billion global citizens from 1995-2015. In the U.S. alone, billion-dollar plus weather disasters have been increasing2 in recent years due to a handful of colliding factors, ranging from population density shifts to more vulnerable areas to climate change. Perhaps it’s no surprise natural catastrophes rank among3 the top 10 business global business risks.
Yet, despite all its risks and consequences, weather is one of the most predictable threats. Business operations across all industries, including corporate facility managers, can use advanced weather data, tools and resources to help predict extreme weather events. While hurricanes and crippling snowstorms command the headlines, facility managers also must prepare for more common occurrences, such as lightning strikes, storm surges, and even moderate snowfall and frigid temperatures as winter is underway. Maximizing the value of advanced weather data enables those executives to maintain business continuity, minimize financial losses and protect employees and property.
Facility managers oversee a number of areas potentially impacted by adverse weather, from an emergency management perspective to personnel considerations. When storms are on the horizon, key questions include when to send employees home, when it’s safe for those employees to come back to work, and when certain branches should close and reopen.
For example, each approaching hurricane season requires decisions on when to board up buildings to prepare for storm surge, while facilities in colder climates must take into account planning around snow removal. There are also questions to consider around widespread power outages caused by weather, and the duration of these outages.
Despite the pervasive impact of adverse weather, most organizations still do not have technology in place that automates decision making based on specific situations that arise. True, some have implemented systems that utilize weather data to trigger facility infrastructure such as backup power generators. And agreements may be in place for say, a snow removal contractor to plow whenever snow reaches 3 inches. More broadly though, these types of decisions are made manually by regional operation or business continuity managers in regard to disaster mitigation plans.
Snow removal contracting is an example of the “nowcasting” and longer term “forecasting” challenges facility managers face. It isn’t enough to simply wake up and check the local news forecast or Internet; there is a need for planning not encompassed in the day-to-day forecast that involves analyzing climate data, climate analysis, and seasonal forecasts.
Understanding that there are seasonal forecasts that come into play helps a company when arranging contractors ahead of time, such as climatologically examining how many times a certain area gets snow per year and then determining from that data if the use of contractors is required. This is why it is important to have pre-event planning in place for such occurrences and why insight gleaned from advanced weather data is key to improving business operations.
Weather disaster planning and tracking
Despite the benefits that come from advanced weather data, many billion-dollar corporations still aren’t leveraging it. It is a true head scratcher as to why these organizations don’t invest a small fraction of their revenue to have a highly personalized daily weather source that tailors information to them based on the unique business needs and threats they face. Instead, most rely on publicly available weather sources on television and online. By utilizing advanced weather data, facility managers responsible for emergency planning can take their speculation on weather out of the equation and instead provide concrete and actionable insights based on the most up-to-date and accurate weather information.
Free vs. commercial weather data
When it comes to the value of advanced commercial weather data versus free, publicly available data,
Hurricane Sandy in 2012 was a huge eye-opener for businesses in the Northeast. Many were not prepared for the devastating effects of that storm and realized that much more could be done to prepare for such damaging weather by utilizing a customized forecast that addresses the needs of their exact facility.
Ultimately, effective weather-based decision-making hinges on access to high quality data that accounts for accuracy, proximity, network size, granularity and frequency. When enough inaccurate data enters a system – often through free sources – quality suffers. For example, some available data sources rely on community-based weather-watchers, those who’ve voluntarily gathered weather data, and weather enthusiasts of all kinds. Relying on crowdsourced volunteer data to make important decisions is risky, which is why utilizing advanced weather data sourced by trained meteorologists who understand your facility and the threats facing your business is a significant advantage.
Many facilities do not undertake seasonal planning and preparation when it comes to dangerous weather. There is an awareness and understanding that certain months of the year are more susceptible to extreme weather events than others, such as hurricane season. But most businesses do not grasp that a different scale of preparation for a property is required in different areas. For instance, in the U.S., there is another level of preparedness that goes into planning for hurricane season for a property in Florida versus a property in Massachusetts.
Disaster mitigation and business continuity planning must factor in the seasonality of severe weather, in terms of dollar amounts and keeping employees safe. This once again comes back to moving beyond the 24-hour news cycle approach to severe weather planning. Major weather events require longer term preparation, while seasonal planning can be effective without being overly time consuming. Advance weather data can reveal the average snowfall for a given area and the number of times that year that snowfall exceeded a particular amount. With such knowledge, a snowfall plan can be developed and subsequently used year after year.
Following a huge weather disaster, many organizations neglect to do a post-event analysis to evaluate what was done well and what areas have room for improvement in terms of preparedness. As with anything, learning from past experiences enables better preparation for the next time such an event occurs. In the case of Hurricane Sandy, it took an incredibly catastrophic event for businesses to realize that they should invest in advanced weather data analysis and tools. It should not take a record weather disaster to mitigate change, but unfortunately that is often the case.
What does advanced weather data look like?
Putting in place an advanced weather data solution is not top of mind for most businesses. Movement usually only happens following a major natural disaster. But that can largely be traced to a lack of confidence that advanced weather data exists to plan with pinpoint accuracy, and that an advanced weather data solution looks different from the weather forecasts seen on TV or the web. There are several attributes to advanced weather data providing enhanced value:
- Advanced weather data is higher resolution in the vertical, horizontal and temporal scales.
- Technical advancements in instrumentation brings more accurate data collection possible.
- Each year advances in technology such as IoT brings new data sources recording weather data into the available dataset libraries.
- More data means better models, better custom forecasts and more accurate solutions.
- Advances in data processing allow for weather data to be used in machine learning algorithms that companies can develop to produce business specific solutions.
Advanced weather data can provide seasonal forecasting, climate analysis, and detailed weather reporting specific for your organization, serving as a go-to, personal meteorologist. Not only does this approach offer a competitive advantage to businesses trying to minimize the impact of severe weather, it also ensures that employees stay safe. But widespread adoption of such a solution will require a shift in thinking. Just as cybersecurity solutions have evolved over the past few years and now include 24-7 surveillance of an organization’s assets, so, too, should advanced weather data be a top priority for facility managers.
Mark Hoekzema is the chief meteorologist and director of meteorological operations at Earth Networks. In this role, Hoekzema oversees meteorological content integration and acquisition across all product lines.