Under the Weather

The battle between meteorologists and 5G

Illustration by Jon Han

At first, Hurricane Harvey didn’t look so bad. During hurricane season, which spans from June through November, roughly half a dozen storms develop in the Atlantic basin without ever making landfall. In Houston, the city’s Integrated Warning Team—a small group of broadcasters, local officials, emergency managers, and employees of the National Weather Service—kept watch and were unfazed. But in the era of climate change, patterns can shift unpredictably and suddenly spin into record-breaking disaster. So much depends on our ability to forecast the weather—and then, when catastrophe strikes, to respond quickly.

On August 23, 2017, Harvey re-formed over the Bay of Campeche, in the Gulf of Mexico. As is routine, meteorologists tracking the hurricane’s path followed updates from the National Weather Service’s regional office and checked competitive modeling programs overseas, exchanging information with colleagues and emergency personnel on private message boards. Their aim was to convey a cohesive message to the public. It was now clear that what had first appeared to be nothing too threatening had become freakishly ominous: hundred-thirty-mile-per-hour winds and forty-five inches of rain in a swirling cascade heading toward the mid-Texas coast. “Harvey was incredible because of how quickly it intensified as it approached land,” Jordan Gerth, a research meteorologist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Space Science and Engineering Center, said. The National Weather Service issued a hurricane warning and Texas declared a state of emergency for thirty counties. Residents of coastal communities were given barely enough time to flee before water submerged their homes; many made it to safety, but sixty-eight people died.

The architecture of forecasting—the warning systems powering weather apps and television broadcasts—is based on public information sources. In order to collect essential weather and climate data, research agencies inside the federal government build and maintain a fleet of weather balloons, hurricane hunter airplanes, and polar-orbiting satellites that are equipped with microwave sounders—highly sensitive sensors—attuned to the vibrations of the water vapor molecule. To observe water vapor is to glimpse the atmosphere’s future.

Water vapor is detectable by meteorological tracking systems at 23.8 gigahertz frequency on the electromagnetic spectrum, which you may remember from physics class as the diagram illustrated with a line of waves that start big and grow smaller, indicating that the frequency is going from low to high. The spectrum measures energy waves, most of them invisible to humans. They travel at the constant speed of light and we measure them in crests and troughs; the number of crests that pass a given point within one second determines the frequency; one wave per second is a hertz. Electromagnetic energy keeps us alive, but we mostly don’t think about it.

The water vapor frequency exists inside the “greenfield,” a term that refers to open bands on the spectrum, around 24 gigahertz and above. Until recently, these were uncrowded reaches: hardly anyone except weather professionals and scientists—namely at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (noaa) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (nasa)—had interest in the greenfield. To most everyone else, it was a junk spectrum. The action was all happening in the lower bands, where consumer telecommunications like radio, broadcast TV, and the wireless broadband network were developed.

But a few years ago, right around the time Harvey hit, the greenfield began to shimmer with appeal. The telecommunications sector was starting to roll out fifth-generation wireless, or 5G, the newest digital cellular technology, which was the first to provide service in a higher-band spectrum.

The idea of 5G was tantalizing. The more spectrum room you have, the faster your network can go, the more users you can support, and the more money you can make. 5G promised hundred-times-faster speeds than 4G and a future “Internet of Things”—a network where every device from your doorbell to your coffee maker could be connected. “If you want to continue to grow the industry and you want to connect sneakers and T-shirts and watches and water meters to this amazing new network, you really do need 5G,” Mike Dano, who covers wireless communications for Light Reading, an industry trade publication, told me.

The wireless industry agreed to standards for 5G and started to build out equipment and infrastructure, which meant that companies needed more spectrum real estate. The White House joined the crusade, making 5G a priority. The Federal Communications Commission set off to campaign “aggressively,” in the words of its chairman, Ajit Pai, to open the greenfield for business and expand the nation’s network capabilities. That would mean selling bands of between 24.25 and 25.25 gigahertz frequencies to T-Mobile, AT&T, and a handful of other companies heavily invested in 5G technology.

But the entry of 5G signals into that swath of the spectrum, adjacent to the comparatively modest dance of the water vapor molecule, could, according to federal agencies and meteorologists worldwide, obstruct the collection of atmospheric data. “You can’t put a nightclub next to a retirement community or a nursery, right?” Gerth said. A prominent member of the American Meteorological Society, Gerth, thirty-three, began studying satellite interference five years ago. “The analogy is very similar to what we’re dealing with here,” he went on. “If the 5G signal stays quiet, it can exist with us next door. If it doesn’t, then it’s going to essentially bleed over and ruin our experience with trying to sense the 23.8 gigahertz band.”

Intricate, accurate foreknowledge of the weather—the extended forecast—is a fact of life, relied upon for everything from flying to farming; weather apps are among the most popular in the world. Moreover, water vapor is a greenhouse gas that traps energy near the earth’s surface, so measuring what it’s doing is particularly important to observing climate change patterns. Knowing how much water vapor is where tells us about shifts in the sea surface, lands caught in drought, and the polar ice caps. “It’s important with climate change to understand the why,” Gerth said. “If we don’t have the water vapor picture, how are we going to be able to isolate the other potential sources or sinks for warming or cooling in the atmosphere?”

Monitoring water vapor is also crucial for warning the public to take cover from a hurricane. “Understanding tropical cyclones is partly reliant on our ability to know what kind of moisture they have access to, because the moisture environment around the storm translates into the amount of rain that will eventually fall out of that storm and produce flooding,” Gerth said. noaa found that a reduction in water vapor data could reduce hurricane forecasting by two or three days, and that the data loss would be most acute over big cities with heavy wireless usage. Rolling out 5G could have a particularly dire impact on a place like Greater Houston, where seven million people reside in ten thousand square miles. For emergency managers and broadcasters in Texas trying to manage the next Harvey, that could mean two or three fewer days to tell people to board up homes, buy food and water, or retreat inland. Residents living by the shore might be stranded at home in the line of disaster, left without time to survive.

You’re not allowed to put a nightclub next to a retirement community. The analogy applies to weather data and 5G.

 

Drive twenty miles outside your city and you can probably still tune in to your favorite radio station. But take your laptop to the backyard, and you probably won’t be able to connect to the Wi-Fi. That’s how spectrum propagation works: radio waves—signals transmitting at a lower frequency and greater strength than Wi-Fi—travel farther. For wireless companies, broadcasting on lower bands means they don’t have to build as many transmitters to get their signal out. But the low bands are crowded; the upper bands are not. All of the open space in the greenfield means that wireless companies, armed with new technology to harness it, can access large blocks of spectrum, enabling transmissions of more data at faster speeds. “It had great capacities so you could get really good speed out of it, and it was lower than some of the other high-band spectrum that we were looking at,” an FCC official told me. “It was empty.”

But, of course, it wasn’t empty. In separate testimony before Congress, the heads of noaa and nasa stated that 5G deployment on the greenfield, without adequate limits to protect monitors’ ability to read the water vapor signal, would imperil weather and climate data collection. Neil Jacobs, noaa’s acting administrator, said the effect could take forecasts back some forty-odd years, to a time when broadcast meteorologists could rarely forecast major storms more than three days out.

That would be a shame; it took a long time to get where we are. The American weather program is as old as the Founding Fathers. Thomas Jefferson recorded the temperature each morning at dawn using a pair of thermometers, and kept a meteorological diary noting fair and cloudy skies. In the early 1900s, foundational tools for modern weather prediction entered into use: the government began flying airplanes to research the atmosphere, sending up weather balloons, and transmitting wireless reports. The most significant evolution of the century came in 1960, with the launch of the polar-orbiting tiros-1, the first Earth observation satellite. Over the following decades, advances in atmospheric sounding—the means by which scientists measure molecules vibrating at different altitudes, in order to gauge atmospheric temperature and moisture—made global weather mapping possible.

At present, polar-orbiting satellites equipped with microwave sounders are circling the poles, flying around Earth as it spins counterclockwise beneath their path and taking snapshots that measure portions of the atmosphere. In a single day, one satellite can orbit the planet fourteen times. The data collected from those flights renders a whole picture of the globe and is funneled into complex computer modeling systems that spit out the predictions we know as the forecast. It’s difficult to count the exact number of American satellites equipped with microwave sounders because there’s no central agency managing them, and different weather satellites use various tools for observation. noaa has eight with microwave sounders and operates another ten in partnership with Europe, Japan, and the Department of Defense. nasa has at least two. And then there are the dozens of private satellites zooming overhead.

Tracking the movement of water vapor is one of the principal functions of these satellites, and there is no signal adjustment they could make to sidestep the introduction of 5G. Because of the way the water vapor molecule is observed, it’s impossible to tune out potential static from, say, cell network towers pinging in crowded cities. “It’s not like communications interference on an old black-and-white TV when you just see snow,” Renée Leduc Clarke, a satellite policy expert who runs Narayan Strategy, a DC-based weather consultancy, said. “When you have interference in these sorts of situations, it still looks like data that’s actually not real data. So that’s why we’re so concerned about it.”

The National Weather Service is, for now, the clearinghouse for weather information and responsible for issuing emergency warnings. The US system is historically decentralized and underpowered, and the National Weather Service has only recently upgraded its modeling software to better compete with its rivals in Europe, the United Kingdom, and Canada in accurately predicting the path of storms. Meteorologists seeking to report on the day’s forecast must pay attention to multiple global and regional models, while also drawing from the work of private companies doing heavy computation—primarily the Weather Company, which is a subsidiary of IBM, and its competitor, Baron Services. These companies absorb enormous streams of continuously updating data, filtering it through proprietary algorithms to produce screen-ready visuals for newscasters. Nearly every television station in the country relies on these tools, since all the world’s competing predictions charted together on a screen look like spaghetti strings jiggling against a moody watercolor. The work is to refine the strings into a range of probabilities.

That isn’t easy. A few weeks after Hurricane Katrina, in 2005, Houston ordered evacuations in advance of Hurricane Rita, another fierce storm that was expected to hit the Gulf Coast. The exodus led to a two-day traffic jam, in extreme heat, involving more than a hundred deaths, while the storm moved offshore and weakened. Rita’s path fell within something called the cone of uncertainty, which has narrowed in the years since, as forecast technologies have improved.

The model of the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, which has the best record for accuracy, became a fixture of newscasts on the East Coast in 2012 during Superstorm Sandy. Other projections had shown a tropical cyclone churning in the ocean, but only the European center, using one of the world’s most powerful supercomputers, correctly charted it veering left, to make landfall in New Jersey. “It was the first time the general public was exposed to the fact that the European weather center had a better model than the US,” Eric Berger, a former Houston Chronicle science reporter who now writes the Space City Weather blog, told me. Scientists at the European center later ran an experiment in which they omitted different sources of information to see how the model would play out. When they removed water vapor data from view, their map, just like all the others, was wrong: it showed Sandy remaining at sea.

The spectrum: 5G technology threatens to interfere with water vapor data, which is needed for weather forecasting. Graphic: Jon Han

On February 28, 2019, Wilbur Ross, the secretary of the Department of Commerce, which oversees noaa, and Jim Bridenstine, the administrator of nasa, sent a letter to Pai, the FCC chairman. Pai, forty-seven, is a former general counsel to Verizon, and in his government work he has remained openly friendly to his colleagues in the wireless sector. Shortly after he was appointed head of the commission, by President Trump, in 2017, Pai spearheaded a repeal of the agency’s rules governing net neutrality—arguably the FCC’s most controversial decision of this century. Pai also enthusiastically championed a fast-moving campaign to open the spectrum for commercial use. For months, he led an FCC effort to put the 24 gigahertz band up for auction. Now there were just two weeks to go. Ross and Bridenstine, both conservative Trump appointees, pleaded that Pai reconsider. The FCC’s plan, they wrote, “would have a significant negative impact on the transmission of critical Earth Science data—an American taxpayer investment spanning decades and billions of dollars.” In the normally staid halls of radio spectrum oversight, this was pulling the fire alarm.

Auctioning off spectrum rights didn’t originate with Pai or the Trump administration; allocating the airwaves is one of the principal functions of the FCC, and the agency has tried various strategies to open up to private enterprise in the past. Years ago, the agency made careful analyses of individual applicants to determine the most deserving, but the process was unwieldy and time-consuming and created massive backlogs. In the 1980s, the FCC introduced a lottery system, only to watch valuable bands go to winners with no capacity to use them. The lottery became a kind of betting pool, with application factories cropping up to guide the unqualified; a group of dentists scored a license so prized that they turned around and sold it to Southwestern Bell for $41 million ($91 million today). Eventually, the agency landed on the most suitably modern and American of solutions—selling the spectrum to the highest bidder. The idea was first proposed in 1959 by a Nobel Prize–winning economist named Ronald Coase, who was literally laughed at when he raised the suggestion during a congressional hearing. But by 1993, privatization was embedded into the code of Washington. The FCC adopted the new protocol and has since generated $114.6 billion in revenue from spectrum licensing, making it one of the few arms of the federal government to earn more than it spends.

Pai had determined that the greenfield lot was ready to go. In advance of an upcoming conference where member states of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU)—the telecommunications body of the United Nations—would agree on restrictions to govern the spectrum, the FCC published what it proposed should be the out-of-band emission limits around the 24 gigahertz frequency—a buffer, to protect the water vapor signal: -20 decibel-watts. That, in the view of the FCC, was sufficient. But in their letter, Ross and Bridenstine asked Pai to backtrack “immediately” because, they wrote, their respective agencies still hadn’t reached consensus on the topic. They invited Pai to a meeting at nasa headquarters to hash out the noise limits and “converge on a unified US government position.”

Pai didn’t conceal his irritation. “As you may know,” he replied, the United States had a position on the matter, one that “resulted from a two-year coordination and reconciliation process.” Pai declined Ross and Bridenstine’s invitation, rejecting any claim that the auction could jeopardize weather reporting. In 2016, when the swath of 24 gigahertz bands was first proposed for sale, nobody had made a fuss about it. Or at least, they hadn’t yet. Determining which slice of the spectrum can go to whom is an achingly deliberative undertaking, involving an alphabet soup of federal agencies, private interests, and international agreements. The FCC is in charge of the commercial spectrum, but another agency, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), manages the government’s bands. Figuring out the rules for out-of-band emissions typically happens toward the end of the negotiation.

The NTIA is part of the Commerce Department, which also oversees noaa, and it was the NTIA, according to Pai, that had “declined to agree with the FCC’s balanced approach.” In 2017, noaa produced a study showing how disruptive the development of 5G would be to meteorological satellites. In his retort to the scientists, Pai wrote that he believed the study had failed to demonstrate a need to tighten out-of-band emissions limits, and that it was ultimately withdrawn because of technical problems. But that’s not exactly true. According to noaa, the study was not withdrawn, it was simply under revision. Around the same time, nasa began conducting its own research, and took over the work. nasa verified noaa’s assessment; again, Pai found the findings problematic. At that point, the FCC invoked “reconciliation,” a standard process by which the State Department serves as arbiter. The State Department sided with the FCC, and that’s how the FCC was able to move forward with its proposed limits, despite the fact that, as Pai wrote, the other agencies had “refused to recognize that US government now has a fully coordinated position on this critical spectrum issue.”

The FCC’s Spectrum Frontiers initiative, as the campaign to sell America on 5G was known, was in keeping with the agency’s mandate, and, Pai argued, the agency had followed all the complex rules governing the auction process, relying on established limits already protecting other bands from interference. “The engineering suggests, and years of experience confirm, that these protection limits enable us to have the best of both worlds,” he wrote. “They enable the 24 gigahertz band to be an American test bed for 5G innovation.”

The FCC had faith in the wireless industry to be good stewards of the spectrum, in the force of markets to resolve their own problems.

 

The White House and the wireless sector were bent on pushing ahead. “I want 5G, and even 6G, technology in the United States as soon as possible,” Trump announced in a tweet. If the FCC was confident that no threat to weather reporting or climate research existed, that confidence was buoyed, undoubtedly, by an underlying faith in the wireless industry to be good stewards of the spectrum—in the all-powerful force of markets resolving their own problems.

Scientists like Gerth were floored. “Even though we knew that this was a bit of a cauldron that was starting to bubble, a lot of spectrum issues were solved internally, within the government,” he said. “A year or eighteen months before the 24 gigahertz auction, I would tell you that the meteorological community was concerned, but they weren’t very attentive to it. They felt, Well, noaa, nasa, the government will work through these issues on their own—academia doesn’t need to get involved, industry doesn’t need to get involved.”

Soon enough, however, scientists decided they had to intervene. More meteorological authorities began chiming in. The US Navy concurred with the noaa and nasa research. An internal analysis by Northrop Grumman, the American contractor that builds the microwave sounders used on polar-orbiting satellites, found that any emissions larger than -58 decibel-watts—significantly more restrictive than the FCC’s proposed limits—would “adversely affect” meteorological instruments. The American Meteorological Society had been studying interference for years, and the World Meteorological Organization, part of the UN, adopted a resolution expressing “serious concern at the continuing threat to several radio-frequency bands” critical to atmospheric observation.

On March 8, the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang published a story on the exchange between the FCC, Commerce, and nasa, writing that “this dispute boils down to, in essence: What’s the bigger priority—the 5G network for wireless providers or accurate weather forecasts?” The coverage circulated in congressional offices. Staffers at the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee and at the Appropriations Committee set to work preparing letters to the FCC. On March 13, the committees mailed separate requests to the agency that the 24 gigahertz auction be delayed until an agreement on signal strength could be reached. The Science Committee was “deeply concerned” that the FCC appeared to be disregarding “the views and concerns of nasa, noaa, the DOD, the National Academy of Sciences, and the international community.” The House Appropriations Committee raised the specter of “potential impact on the federal investment of billions of dollars in our satellite fleet, which is designed to support our defense apparatus and to provide lifesaving weather data.”

It was unusual for oversight committees to try to stop a spectrum auction, but the FCC was undeterred. A spokesman for the agency responded immediately, telling the Capital Weather Gang that it was “perplexing” to be asked to delay the auction so late in the game. “While our nation’s international competitors would undoubtedly be pleased,” he said, “the FCC will move forward as planned so that our nation can win the race to 5G.” Pai stated—and has maintained—that his office didn’t receive any evidence or validated studies indicating that the out-of-band emission limits he had proposed would harm weather and climate data collection. The 24 gigahertz auction began as scheduled the following day, March 14.

But spectral interference was brewing into a bigger political fight. Pointed letters and comments started flying around the Capitol. On April 2, Bridenstine, the nasa administrator, told Congress that there was “a very high probability that we are going to lose a lot of data.” On May 13, Maria Cantwell, the ranking member on the Senate Science Committee, wrote to Pai asking him to prevent companies from accessing the 24 gigahertz band “until vital weather forecasting operations are protected.” On May 16, the Aerospace Industries Association, a trade group, called for caution and more testing. One phone won’t matter, the group said, but by 2023 the number of people using 5G could be one billion.

Jacobs, the acting director of noaa, spoke about the matter during a House Science Committee hearing. Jacobs, forty-five, the former chief atmospheric scientist at Panasonic and an expert in numerical weather modeling, had been brought to the agency in part to improve its forecasting. In video of the testimony, he appears trim and bookish in a blue suit, with close-cropped hair and dark-rimmed glasses, staring down at notes as he speaks into the microphone. The US would have to abide by out-of-band emission limits set at the ITU conference, but Jacobs affirmed to the committee that the limits set by the FCC ahead of its auction had the potential to “degrade the forecast skill by up to 30 percent.”

Later in the hearing, Representative Frank Lucas asked Jacobs to explain how he confirmed that number. Jacobs explained that he worked with nasa—the “agency that sent a man to the moon fifty years ago using calculators”—and ran his math twice, at the FCC’s request. He reiterated that noaa and nasa recommended far stricter limits than the FCC proposed.

“So you’re comfortable in saying that noaa dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s?” Lucas asked.

“I’m confident,” Jacobs said.

Still, the FCC objected to the science. A few weeks later, in June, Pai laid out for Congress in testimony and letters the flaws he saw in the noaa and nasa research. Pai said that the agencies had failed to account for numerous technical factors relating to the way 5G was actually going to be deployed.

The wireless industry echoed those comments. Brad Gillen, the executive vice president of CTIA, the sector’s lobbying arm, wrote a blog post accusing the Commerce Department of “misleading” Congress and the press. “We were pretty surprised to learn the ongoing FCC 5G spectrum auction will mean our 7-day forecast will go away,” he wrote, calling it “an absurd claim with no science behind it.” CTIA dismissed the research by noaa and nasa because it was based, at least in part, on projections from an old satellite that was never launched. But the scientific community said that was nonsense. A new version of the satellite had launched. Gerth tweeted: “Dear @CTIA, I’d like to introduce you to the Advanced Technology Microwave Sounder (ATMS), a real instrument in flight right now with a sensing band at 23.8 GHz.” He appended the hashtag #FactsMatter.

After the auction closed, on May 28, CTIA declared that it was “time to move past the surprising debate about interference rules.” T-Mobile, AT&T, and other telecoms knew about the public deliberations when they went into the bidding, and knew that the ITU would implement rules that could change their licenses, but that didn’t stop them from leasing shares of the 24 gigahertz spectrum worth more than $2 billion.

Illustration by Jon Han

Late in 2019, American delegates headed to the International Telecommunication Union’s World Radiocommunication Conference, in Egypt. The signal limits of 5G were scheduled for debate. Not only did the US proposal defy the recommendations of the country’s own experts; it also ran up against the World Meteorological Organization, which argued for even tighter restrictions than nasa’s. The negotiators landed on a compromise: the standard buffer was set at -33 decibel-watts. In 2027, by which time 5G would presumably be widely deployed, it would get slightly stricter, down to -39 decibel-watts.

Shortly after the conference, the FCC issued licenses for the 24 gigahertz bands without bothering to account for the new limits, which the US won’t officially adopt for about another year. But CTIA expressed its support of the new agreement. The US expects 5G to attract billions more dollars in revenue. The leases of 24 gigahertz bands represent a fraction of that.

“Trump talks about the race to 5G, the FCC talks about the race to 5G; what they’re talking about is economics,” Dano, the reporter for Light Reading, told me. The US doesn’t want the inventor of a 5G Uber going off to China, where companies are unencumbered by regulation and building faster networks, he said. Then China would become the new Silicon Valley. Nor does the State Department want another nation developing the future of communications equipment. Foreign companies have been denied bids to build such infrastructure inside the US in the past, out of concern for national security; last year, the FCC voted down an application from a company called Chinese Mobile US.

ITU delegates thought they were setting rules that wouldn’t impede innovation or cause too much interference for weather instruments, but the deal they struck amounted to a scandal inside the meteorology community. Eric Allaix, a French meteorologist who heads a UN group on radio-frequency coordination, told Nature News that the limits weren’t close to stringent enough. The World Meteorological Organization was so upset that its members read a statement of opposition into the meeting minutes in Egypt, making note of the ramifications for “our common ability to monitor climate change in the future.” The European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts also released a statement, calling the decision “a big disappointment” and another disheartening case of “science losing out to other societal pressures.”

None of the FCC’s bidders had started using the frequency yet. In Washington, the matter continued stirring debate on committee floors. After the ITU conference, the bipartisan heads of four Senate committees wrote to the White House requesting a new national strategy on 5G, while Senate Democrats began to question Pai’s timeline, asking whether it was wise to hold the auction when the interference limits were still under discussion. At a recent hearing, Senator Cantwell complained that the FCC had “approached the issue the worst possible way by just dismissing the science.” The agency itself hasn’t escaped the Capitol’s growing party-line divisions. At a recent hearing, FCC member Jessica Rosenworcel, who is a Democrat—traditionally, the commission is stacked with representatives of both parties—complained about the “embarrassing” impasse. She told me: “This is unfortunate. It is no way to do spectrum policy.”

At the end of 2019, yet another letter left the offices of the House Science Committee, this time bound for the Government Accountability Office. Representatives Eddie Bernice Johnson, the chairwoman, and Lucas, the ranking Republican, asked the agency to look into the “concerning” contradictory arguments from the FCC, NTIA, noaa, and nasa. It was essential, they wrote, that “federal agencies work through these issues in a manner that is independent of political motivation and driven by science.” The GAO accepted the committee’s assignment and expects to start its review soon.

What remains frustrating, Gerth told me, is that the weather community doesn’t want to be known for obstruction. Meteorologists just want to be heard. “We really want to rely on the science and try to avoid conflicts as much as we can, instead of waiting for the telecoms to select a new frequency,” he said. If they do, scientists will have to wave their hands in the air again—and, “eventually, that message will wear out.”

What this all means for frontline meteorologists and climate watchers depends on how 5G technology winds up being implemented. As the planet warms and the seas rise, our collective ability to observe the climate changing and to inform people about it is a consequential power. Any act that could diminish it would seem to be, to put it mildly, counterproductive. Heather Vaughan, communications director for Republicans on the Science Committee, told me that the interference question presented an obvious opportunity for bipartisan unity. Protecting the forecast is really about protecting life and property, she said. “It’s a lot more than just, you know, getting your weekend weather report.”

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Mary Cuddehe has written for Harper’s, Rolling Stone, The Atavist, and Vanity Fair, among other publications. She is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School.