Future Forecast Calls for Integrated Environmental Information

NOAA's National Weather Service is the primary source of weather data, forecasts, and warnings for the United States and is the sole United States official voice for issuing warnings during life-threatening weather situations.

Most of us are familiar with the role of NOAA's National Weather Service in providing weather data and making the announcements about severe weather watches and warnings that scroll along the bottom of our television screens. The National Weather Service has come a long way since its early days of using signal flags to alert the public of impending severe storms. But where is the National Weather Service headed in the future?

Aviation - cross polar traffic levels graph.

The Space Environment Center provides solar forecasts for the aviation community and others. Research into solar flares, which can have a significant effect on terrestrial and space-based technologies, is just one area that the National Weather Service is expanding in order to respond to increasing customer needs. Click image for larger view.

Still largely in a "detection-based" severe weather warning environment, the National Weather Service is exploring ways to evolve into the digital age. This means delivering better and new services for increasingly sophisticated customers, responding to increased societal risk from environmental events, providing new and integrated environmental information services across NOAA, and delivering more accurate and timely products for the public.

From new technologies to meet new challenges to increased integration with the other arms of NOAA, this article looks at future directions the National Weather Service will likely take in meeting its mission of protecting lives and livelihoods.


A Recent Evolution

Using multiple beams and frequencies that are controlled electronically, phased array radar reduces the scan time of severe weather from six minutes for NEXRAD radar to only one minute. Using multiple beams and frequencies that are controlled electronically, phased array radar reduces the scan time of severe weather from six minutes for NEXRAD radar to only one minute.

Phased array radar dome in Norman, Oklahoma. Using multiple beams and frequencies that are controlled electronically, phased array radar reduces the scan time of severe weather from six minutes for NEXRAD radar to only one minute. This in turn produces quicker data updates, potentially increasing the lead time for tornado warnings well beyond the current average of 11 minutes.

In the 1990s, the National Weather Service modernized and restructured its operations. New observation and computational systems put a wealth of weather and water data at the fingertips of forecasters in each of the 122 Weather Forecast Offices, 13 River Forecast Centers, and nine National Centers. These data allowed scientists to provide more accurate and timely warning and forecast services to the nation.

The ability to identify the early signs of severe weather such as thunderstorms or tornadoes allowed forecasters to provide predictive rather than reactive severe weather warnings. This advanced warning time represented a significant achievement for NOAA and continues to provide value and increased safety to the public.

Having realized the benefits of the modernization efforts of the 1990s, the National Weather Service is preparing to move into a new phase. This new evolution is intended to build upon earlier modernization efforts to 1) meet new and expanding service requirements; 2) help society cope with increased risks from environmental events; and 3) provide new, integrated environmental information services across NOAA. These efforts are grounded in the creativity and expertise of National Weather Service staff, in collaboration with NOAA partners and external stakeholders.


Meeting New Service Requirements

The rapid expansion of technology in today's society requires more sophisticated data delivery mechanisms that provide specific information, guidance, and decision-support tools for the nation. Given the broad scope of NOAA responsibilities, delivering these data can be quite a challenging task. NOAA efforts currently range from sun-to-sea and include everything from space weather to ocean current observations. Meeting demands for quick and easy access to information that spans such a wide range of issues requires a shift in how both the NWS and NOAA operate.

Incident meteorologists taking readings and providing forecasts in the field

Incident meteorologists work side-by-side with fire fighting officials, taking readings and providing forecasts in the field to help in fire containment.

In recent years, more and more people are using National Weather Service information. From the public safety and health communities to environmental, commercial, and academic partners and customers, users are bringing a wider variety of expectations. In addition, homeland security-related threats and demands at the state and local levels have required an increased level of support from the National Weather Service. For example, the National Weather Service Incident Meteorologist (IMET) program, designed primarily for on-site wildfire services, will now support first responders following terrorist attacks and other emergencies, to provide the information needed to ensure public safety. IMETs work in the field side-by-side with the police, fire, and other safety officials.

The National Weather Service envisions a future in which services such as IMET will be applied across a wide variety of environmental situations such as manmade events including terrorism, chemical spills, and explosions that extend beyond severe storms.

To support public safety officials in addressing a range of catastrophic events, the National Weather Service will adopt a more hands-on approach that involves partnerships with on-scene first responders.


Reducing Societal Risk from Environmental Events

Population growth and demographic shifts to coastal areas have increased the number of lives at risk and reduced the natural ability of these areas to mitigate the impacts of severe storms. In addition, corresponding economic growth in these areas has increased the financial impact resulting from storms. Society's increasing vulnerability to environmental events is yet another challenge that the National Weather Service will work to address.

Hurricane Katrina, the most destructive hurricane in U.S. history, as well as Hurricanes Rita and Wilma, taught the nation valuable lessons about the evolving needs of growing local communities and the emergency managers and other public officials charged with their safety. Despite our accurate forecasts, the 2005 Atlantic Hurricane season resulted in devastating human losses and raised serious questions about whether the public is adequately informed in terms of how to protect themselves during and prior to a catastrophic event.

Public outreach and education efforts will be critical components of the National Weather Service's future vision, as the agency transforms to meet the needs of a multicultural 21st century United States. Hurricane Katrina was a vivid reminder of the need for continued outreach and education at all levels to prepare for future natural events and ensure the safety of those at greatest risk.


Integrating Environmental Information Services Across NOAA

The National Weather Service is increasingly called upon to provide services in support of NOAA's broader environmental mission. For example, in 2005, the National Weather Service assisted in efforts to identify the cause of a massive algal bloom that devastated the shellfish industry and affected tourism in New England. To identify the cause of the bloom, it was necessary to examine an array of physical, chemical, and biological data. The primary causes of the bloom were the larger-than-normal amounts of fresh water flowing into the Gulf of Maine due to an abnormally wet winter and spring and a persistent atmospheric circulation pattern that held the bloom in place in the worst possible area for the shellfish industry. This is just one example of the need to apply information and expertise from across NOAA to address complex environmental issues.

The National Weather Service is evolving to provide a much broader scope of environmental information services through a NOAA-wide delivery model that makes full use of its data and products. The application of advanced technological capabilities and expertise in the National Weather Service and across NOAA will allow us to address problems in the most efficient and comprehensive way possible.



NOAA's National Weather Service of the future will be a flexible, effective service organization that focuses on high-impact events, maximizes use of science and technology, and collaborates with internal and external partners to provide integrated environmental information services.

NOAA will continue to deliver the weather forecasts and warnings that we all depend on. However, as we enter the next two decades, NOAA will expand the types of environmental information it delivers, providing environmental predictions in probabilistic terms, producing warnings based on short-term forecasts - not just observations; extending predictions to other environmental parameters, such as water quality; and providing customers environmental information in a timely manner and preferred format.



Works Consulted

Crossett, K. (2005). Population Trends Along the Coastal United States: 1980-2008. Retrieved November 1, 2006, from: http://www.oceanservice.noaa.gov/programs/mb/

Johnson, D.L. (2006). Global perspectives: protecting lives, livelihoods, and your way of life. World Meteorological Day address published under the Australian Government Bureau of Meteorology seal.