A division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Weather Service (NWS) is the primary source of weather data, forecasts, and warnings for the United States, supplying raw data to weathercasters and private meteorologists, and acting as the sole official national source for warnings during life-threatening weather situations. Approximately 1/7 of the U.S. economy is weather sensitive.
The beginnings of the agency date back to 1870, when President Ulysses S. Grant signed a joint resolution of Congress authorizing the establishment of a national weather service by the Secretary of War, required to “provide for taking meteorological observations at the military stations in the interior of the continent and at other points in the States and Territories...and for giving notice on the northern [Great] Lakes and on the seacoast by magnetic telegraph and marine signals, of the approach and force of storms.”
The agency was reportedly placed under the Secretary of War’s supervision because it was assumed that “military discipline would probably secure the greatest promptness, regularity, and accuracy.” The agency was first named “The Division of Telegrams and Reports for the Benefit of Commerce.”
A Weather Bureau was first identified as a civilian enterprise when Congress passed an act creating it within the Department of Agriculture in 1890.
The Weather Bureau was transferred to the Department of Commerce in 1940, and renamed the National Weather Service in 1967, when it was transferred to the Environmental Science Services Administration (ESSA). In 1970, the ESSA became the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The National Weather Service (NWS) provides weather, hydrologic and climate forecasts and warnings for the U.S.—including its territories, adjacent waters and ocean areas, with data gathered from a broad national infrastructure covering land, sea, and air. The agency’s mission includes a mandate to “protect life and property and enhance the national economy.”
Data includes that gathered from weather radar and satellites, as well as from marine observation buoys and surface observation systems that assist the aviation industry. The agency collects, compiles and analyzes data, and generates outlooks, forecasts, and warnings.
In addition to agency employees, NWS operations are aided by community volunteers, cooperative observers, and “storm spotters,” who collect and report critical data.
After a $4.5 billion modernization project, the agency includes 121 field offices, 13 river forecast centers and nine national centers. NWS maintains the largest meteorological telecommunications switching center in the world, sending and receiving around 400,000 bulletins each day.
According to the government, the agency issues more than 734,000 forecasts (fire weather, public, aviation, marine) and 850,000 river and flood forecasts annually, including 45,000 to 50,000 potentially life-saving severe weather warnings.
Additionally, the agency’s operations have a significant impact on the economy. Industries like construction, which contributes more than $200 billion annually to the U.S. economy, are directly dependent on accurate short- and long-range weather forecasts. NWS forecasts are also critical to commercial and private transportation industries.
From the Web Site of the National Weather Service
NWS and American Red Cross Tornado Safety Rules in Conflict
The National Weather Service (NWS) found itself in conflict with the American Red Cross in 2009 after the private nonprofit group changed its recommendations regarding tornado safety.
Both the NWS and the Red Cross once recommended when you’re in a car, you should try to drive away from the tornado, but if it catches up to the vehicle, you should get out and lie down in a ditch. Both entities still believe that driving away from the storm is best, but they now diverge on what to do if it catches you. The Red Cross has decided it is a better idea for you to remain buckled up in your car while riding out the natural disaster than it is to ditch it.
The Red Cross based its decision on the research of Kent State University professor Tom Schmidlin, who found that a relatively small percentage of vehicles were moved or tipped over during tornadoes.
The NWS, however, clung to its existing policy of telling individuals to get out of their vehicles. Its guidelines said that “vehicles are notorious as death traps in tornadoes, because they are easily tossed and destroyed.”
Confusion on What to Do If Car Meets Tornado (by Steve Tracton, Washington Post)
New Red Cross Tornado Safety Guidelines Spark Controversy (ThorntonWeather.com)
Tornado Safety - Cars Versus Ditches: A Controversy (by Greg Forbes, Weather Channel)
NOAA/NWS Censors Its Web Site On Global Warming Doubts
The NWS was accused in 2009, along with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), of removing information that doubted the existence of global warming from its website.
On the NWS site was a page entitled “It’s a Gas Man” that contained lessons on the atmosphere. The content included a statement that read: “There is no evidence that it [carbon dioxide] is causing an increase in global temperatures.”
Another section stated: “The behavior of the atmosphere is extremely complex. Therefore, discovering the validity of global warming is complex as well. How much effect will [sic] the increase in carbon dioxide will have is unclear or even if we recognize the effects of any increase.”
The page then came down a couple days after it was uploaded. When it went back online, the above-referenced statements were gone.
Examiner.com wrote: “The entire episode has many questioning if NOAA is censoring the content that National Weather Service employees believe is most appropriate for their audience. Worse yet, is NOAA censoring dissenting opinions of trained meteorologists within its own organization?”
Controversial NOAA Climate Change Page Returns - Missing Original Skeptical Text (by Tony Hake, Examiner.com)
More Americans Now Believe Climate Change (by Sally Anne Lewis, Suite 101)
Climate Change Belief Increased In U.S. After Extreme Weather, NOAA Chief Says (by Rod McGuirk, Associated Press)
NWS Veteran/NHC Head Ousted Amid Controversy
A 30-year veteran of the NWS, Bill Proenza became director of the National Hurricane Center (NHC) in 2007, but was put on administrative leave following a veritable staff mutiny. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) permanently removed him from his position in July of that year, and subsequently returned him to his earlier position as director of the Southern Region of the NWS. Proenza had spoken bluntly about agency budget issues in public, criticizing recent budget cuts and arbitrary expenditures. One of few NWS senior managers who spoke out against the NOAA consolidation/rebranding issue (see below), Proenza was moved to the NHC around the same time. See below for ensuing controversy:
NOAA's NWS Near Naming New NHC Noggin? (by Steve Scolnik, Washington Post)
Hurricane Center's ex-chief to tell Congress his side (by Eric Berger, Houston Chronicle)
Hurricane chief out after 6 months (by Eliot Kleinberg, Palm Beach Post)
A Hurricane Of Controversy At The NHC (The Oasis)
Proenza Likely to Resign (Wunderground.com)
Following the high-profile success of the NHC and NWS in predicting Katrina, NOAA executives attempted a corporate-style rebranding of the NWS and associated appropriations restructuring. NOAA ordered the NHC to remove all NWS logos on their products and replace them with NOAA logos. The proposal was withdrawn following resistance from the then-NHC director and House appropriations subcommittee—as well as vigorous protests from within the meteorological community. Bill Proenza (see above) also figured into the controversy when he criticized parent company NOAA for spending on bicentennial festivities amid budget cuts for hurricane research. Other critics in the weather community claimed that President George W. Bush’s proposed 2008 budget left no funding at all for hurricane research flights.
Hurricane Research Flights Grounded (by Jeff Masters, WunderBlog)
Two NWS resignations come amid political controversy (Stormtrack)
NWS Modifications of Common Alerting Protocol (CAP)
Amid President Bush’s plan to overhaul the country’s emergency warning system in the wake of Katrina, some raised concerns about NWS’s alleged modifications to a major emergency warning standard, the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP), a national open standard for universal alert messaging. Developed by industry and emergency managers, the protocol was adopted by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards in 2003, endorsed by the Emergency Management Agency in 2004, and in use by a number of government agencies. The original CAP architect and a California emergency management official, Art Botterell, protested the NOAA/NWS development of what he called a “dumbed-down” version of CAP.
Fair Warning: Standards, coordination at heart of alert-system debate (by Alice Lipowicz, Washington Technology)
In September 2005, amid the chaos surrounding the federal government’s response to the Katrina disaster, NWS officials testified before the House that they did everything within their power to inform federal, state, and local authorities of the severity of the hurricane in the days leading up to the storm.
Around the same time, while the NWSD bill was still in committee, Sen. Santorum criticized the NWS forecast of Katrina, claiming that more lives could have been saved if the agency’s focus was more firmly on severe weather. However, public and professional opinion—as well as that of lawmakers, generally affirmed that the NWS forecasting had been more than adequate. In detailed warnings to officials and public announcements, the NWS relayed their prediction that the hurricane would be a Category 4 when it hit, and that it was headed to Southeast Louisiana and New Orleans, a forecast that proved remarkably accurate. (The Fox News article mentioned above, however, claims that the agency lagged well behind Accuweather in predicting the Katrina disaster.)
Weather Service officials gave dire, accurate warnings before Katrina hit (by Chris Strohm, Government Executive)
Public v. Private and the National Weather Service Duties Act of 2005
Since 1991, an NWS non-competition policy has prohibited (or at least, discouraged) the agency from providing the same types of specialized information and services sold by private weather companies. In December 2004, the NOAA changed that policy by removing the relevant prohibitive language—rather stating that the agency would “give due consideration” to private-sector companies. But well before that, the NWS had begun offering an increasing amount of free forecasting data, statistics and weather information to the public through its websites. By 2005 the agency was under fire, with critics from the private sector claiming that they had overstepped their bounds by competing with private weather companies that sell such detailed weather information to specific markets (farmers, business, etc.).
In April 2005, Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pennsylvania), claiming the agency’s new policy improperly allowed the NWS and parent NOAA to expand into areas already served by the commercial industry, introduced the National Weather Service Duties Act to the 109th Congress. The bill was intended to limit the duties and responsibilities of the (NWS), eliminating the agency as a competitor for the private sector weather industry. Had it been enacted, the bill could have resulted in far-reaching industry restructuring, requiring everyone from pilots to farmers to purchase weather data through private companies.
Santorum’s bill failed to find sponsorship in the Senate and died in committee. The bill had little support outside the commercial weather industry, and was criticized by the public for threatening to force crucial data—already paid for by tax dollars—through commercial channels.
Additionally, Santorum was accused of political impropriety because one of his constituents, Joel Myers, the head of a Pennsylvania-based weather company, was also a campaign contributor. In a 2005 Computer World article, Myers stated that private weather companies want NWS to continue providing free public weather information, but to curb efforts to provide the specialized data and forecasts that are central to private weather industry profits.
Storm brewing over online data from National Weather Service: A bill has been introduced to limit what the NWS provides (by Todd Weiss, Computer World)
Many consider the following piece by Fox News to be propaganda for the private sector in the debate over NWS’s non-competition policy. (The article levels exaggerated criticisms of incompetence and inaccuracy against the agency, while praising Accuweather—the company featured in the Santorum initiative, whose Vice President was also a Santorum campaign contributor):
Does Government Weather Forecasting Endanger Lives? (by John Lott, Fox News)
NWS Forecasting System Being Upgraded by Raytheon
Raytheon Co. announced in January 2012 that it had completed upgrading the National Weather Service’s (NWS) forecasting system.
The new version of the Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System (AWIPS II) was expected to help NWS forecasters make “more precise weather, water and climate predictions, and to dispense rapid, highly reliable warnings and advisories that save lives and safeguard property,” according to a Raytheon announcement.
“We expect that the AWIPS II software architecture will allow the National Weather Service to reduce information technology sustainment costs and allow greater interoperability and collaboration with neighboring forecast offices, emergency managers and inter-agency partners before, during and after disasters strike,” said Don Berchoff, director of the NWS Office of Science and Technology.
Raytheon Upgrades National Weather Service Forecasting System (by Eddy Metcalf, AvStop.com)
AWIPS II (Unidata)
NWS Smart Phone Weather App
At a time when there are hundreds of weather apps available to consumers for their mobile devices, the NWS, which has a mobile web site that offers forecasts by ZIP codes, has been conspicuously absent in providing its own weather app for smart phones.
After all, most of the private weather apps use NWS data, so why doesn’t the agency just put out its own app, government observers wondered.
In 2012, the NWS management explicitly told employees not to work on developing a weather app, which didn’t sit well with many workers, or their labor representatives, the National Weather Service Employees Union.
The union wrote to the NWS saying it considered the no-apps policy a de facto form of privatizing NWS products and services, because it essentially kept the agency out of a busy marketplace filled with consumers.
National Weather Service Hold On Mobile Apps Stirs Controversy (by Andrew Freedman, Washington Post)
The Great Gov Apps Debate Hits NOAA (by Joseph Marks, Nextgov)
National Weather Service Mobile Site To Get Facelift (by Alice Lipowicz, GCN)
Fox News Calls for Elimination of NWS
While Hurricane Irene headed for the East Coast in 2011, Fox News published an opinion piece advocating for dissolving the NWS.
In an Op-ed, Iain Murray, vice president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), and David Bier, a research associate at CEI, wrote that the NWS was an antiquated, costly and ineffective agency that no longer served a useful purpose.
Noting the NWS was founded in the 19th century as part of the War Department, Murray and Bier claimed the agency was not originally a public information agency. But it managed to stick around, and increase its budget along the way, they wrote.
“Today the NWS justifies itself on public interest grounds. It issues severe weather advisories and hijacks local radio and television stations to get the message out,” the article read. “It presumes that citizens do not pay attention to the weather and so it must force important, perhaps lifesaving, information upon them. A few seconds’ thought reveals how silly this is. The weather might be the subject people care most about on a daily basis. There is a very successful private TV channel dedicated to it, 24 hours a day, as well as any number of phone and PC apps. Americans need not be forced to turn over part of their earnings to support weather reporting.”
Murray and Bier also accused the NWS of failing to do its job properly, arguing the agency “failed to predict major flooding in Nashville because it miscalculated the rate at which water was releasing from dams there. The NWS continued to rely on bad information, even after forecasters knew the data were inaccurate. The flooding resulted in 22 deaths.”
Supporters of the NWS came to its defense. Media Matters called the Fox-run Op-ed “ill advised” and noted that publications such as Scientific American and even some conservative voices disagreed with the idea of shutting down the NWS. As it is, budget cuts will take away some positions and perhaps interfere with air quality reporting and improving hurricane forecasting, among other services.
Do We Really Need a National Weather Service? (by Iain Murray and David Bier, Fox News)
Obama Budget Would Eliminate IT Jobs At National Weather Service (by Paul Bowers, Charleston City Paper)
Fox News Publishes Ill-Advised Calls To End The National Weather Service (by Shauna Theel, Media Matters for America)
Cold Front. Hurricane Debate Shatters Civility Of Weather Science: Worsened by Global Warming? Spats Are So Tempestuous, Sides Are Barely Talking (by Valerie Bauerlein, Wall Street Journal) (PDF)
The nation’s top weather forecaster is a twenty-year veteran of the National Weather Service (NWS) who has forecast the weather in such diverse climes as Alaska, Hawai’i and North Carolina. Laura K. Furgione is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Acting Assistant Administrator for Weather Services and Acting Director of NWS. As such, she is responsible for day-to-day civilian weather operations for the U.S., its territories, adjacent waters and ocean areas.
Born circa 1971, Laura (Eikermann) Furgione graduated from Bourbon High School in Bourbon, Missouri, a small town (pop.: 1,632) about 70 miles southwest of St. Louis, in 1989. She earned a B.S. in Atmospheric Science from the University of Missouri at Columbia in 1993 and an MPA at the University of Alaska-Southeast in 2004. Furgione worked her way through college as an usher for MU Athletics, at the Office of the Dean of the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, and at a small NWS office at the Columbia Regional Airport. She landed a summer internship between her junior and senior years at the NWS station in Honolulu, Hawai’i, which she said gave her “insight on how to get a position with the National Weather Service.” In fact, Furgione got a job offer from NWS by March 1993, two months before graduation, which “made finals a lot less stressful,” Furgione readily admits.
Her first NWS position was as a meteorological intern in Kodiak, Alaska, where she joined the Coast Guard Auxiliary to learn more about the ocean and met her future husband, Tim Furgione. After one year at Kodiak and another one-year internship at the NWS office in Fairbanks, Furgione became an aviation meteorologist at the Alaska Aviation Weather Unit in Anchorage. She stayed for three years, from 1995 to 1998.
Her next job sent her to a very different climate, that of Morehead City, North Carolina, where she was a warning coordination meteorologist, which she calls “one of the most exciting positions” in NWS. During her first summer there, she worked on three major hurricanes—Dennis, Floyd and Irene—and enjoyed having “more of a grassroots connection to the public.”
After 15 months in North Carolina, Furgione returned to Alaska in 2000 as the meteorologist in charge of the NWS Juneau Weather Forecast Office, and began her Master of Public Administration (MPA) program at the University of Alaska-Southeast, which she completed in 2004. In August 2002, Furgione moved to Anchorage to become the deputy regional director, and two years later became regional director, with responsibility for 20 offices throughout the state, a position she held from October 2004 to August 2008.
She made the big move to the Washington, DC, area to serve as assistant administrator for the NOAA Office of Program Planning and Integration beginning September 2008. In July 2010, she was named deputy director of NWS and deputy assistant administrator for Weather Services NOAA. On May 29, 2012, she was named acting director of NWS.
Laura Furgione and her husband, Tim, have twins born in October 2004. She has had an active HAM Radio license since March 2010.
CAFNR Connections Mentor, Laura Furgione (by Sara Muri)
Catching Up with Laura K. Furgione (by Kate Murphy, New York Times)
Weather Service Puts App Development on Hold (by Susan Hall, IT Business Edge)
Dr. John L. “Jack” Hayes graduated from Bowling Green University with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. He earned a Master of Science degree and a Ph.D in meteorolgy from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterry, CA. From 1970 through 1998 he served in the United States Air Force, starting as a weather forecast officer and eventually rising to the position of Commander of the newly-formed Air Force Weather Agency and Air Force Global Weather Center. Hayes then went to work in private industry as general manager of the $500 million Automated Weather Interactive Processing System program at Litton-PRC. After two years, Hayes joined the NOAA, serving as deputy assistant administrator for NOAA Research, Deputy Assistant Administrator of the National Ocean Service and Director of the Office of Science and Technology at NWS. Hayes then served as director of the World Weather Watch Department at the United Nations’ World Meteorological Organization. He was appointed to head the National Weather Service in June 2007.