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News from the National Academies
Date: July 14, 1998
Contacts: Molly Galvin, Media Relations Officer
David Schneier, Media Relations Assistant
(202) 334-2138; e-mail <news@nas.edu>

[EMBARGOED: NOT FOR PUBLIC RELEASE BEFORE 5 P.M. EDT TUESDAY, JULY 14]

Publication Announcement

Stronger Management, New Technology Needed
To Improve Weather Data Network

For more than a century, the National Weather Service (NWS) and other federal agencies have relied on a network of thousands of volunteers across the country to gather data on climate and weather such as rainfall, snowfall, and temperature. Operating on an annual budget of less than $10 million, the Cooperative Observer Network provides information for making daily and weekly forecasts, monitoring water resources, and charting environmental changes. Businesses also use the data for decisions such as where to plant crops or build a power plant.

But despite growing demand for the data, organizational and budgetary constraints have weakened the network over the last decade. More funding is needed to maintain operations and upgrade instruments -- many of which have not changed significantly in years, says a new report by a panel of the National Research Council. By improving management and gradually automating more data collection and communications functions, the network could become well-positioned to serve the nation into the next century.

Government agencies that use the network's data, for example the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the departments of Agriculture and the Interior, often are delayed in getting the information they need because of inefficient and slow data reporting, obsolete equipment, and differences in priorities between NWS and the National Climatic Data Center, another government entity that processes and disseminates data from the network.

To make data available quickly and improve accuracy, the report says, new weather monitoring equipment that can automatically measure weather factors should be introduced gradually and tested at selected sites. Automating data collection would reduce heavy demands on volunteers, but they will still be needed to oversee equipment and observations and to supply information -- such as snow depth and precipitation -- that cannot be measured fully with existing technology. NWS already has begun installing electronic temperature measuring systems at many of the volunteer sites. Other technologies, including sensors to measure humidity and solar radiation, could be added to bolster the network's capabilities.

In addition, upgraded real-time digital communications systems should be installed to allow volunteers to report data on at least a daily basis, the panel said. Volunteers now gather two types of data -- climate data, such as daily temperatures, precipitation, or snowfall; or hydrologic information for river and flood forecasting. Depending on the data and the technological capabilities of the volunteer sites, information might be reported daily to NWS offices or submitted less frequently by mail. NWS staff must process the information before making it available to other users. Fully automating data reporting would give other users more frequent and faster access to information.

Some local or regional networks outside of the cooperative observer system should be considered as sources of data to augment the observer system's efforts, the report says. For example, two universities in Oklahoma operate a statewide network of environmental monitoring stations that measure temperature, wind speed, and other factors at more than 100 sites. These types of networks could enhance the cooperative's capabilities if the data meet established standards.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) -- which houses the National Weather Service and National Climatic Data Center -- should establish an office that would ensure the cooperative network is properly managed and funded, the report says. The central office should make the observer network a high priority within NOAA and with other agencies that use the data. In addition, NOAA should work with other agencies to establish an interagency management council to involve federal users in planning, policy-making, and funding. Industry and other users from the private sector also may need to provide more funding to upgrade the system. To recover costs, fees should be charged for processing and copying the data or making it available over the Internet.

The study was funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A panel roster follows. Copies of will be available from the National Academy Press for $31.00 (estimated) plus shipping charges of $4.00 for the first copy and $.50 for each additional copy; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a pre-publication copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).

Read the full text of Toward a New National Weather Service: Future of the National Weather Service Cooperative Observer Networkfor free on the Web, as well as more than 1,800 other publications from the National Academies. Printed copies are available for purchase from the National Academy Press Web siteor at the mailing address in the letterhead; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a pre-publication copy from the Office of News and Public Information at the letterhead address (contacts listed above).


National Research Council
Commission on Engineering and Technical Systems
National Weather Service Modernization Committee

Panel on Climate Record: Modernization of the Cooperative Observer Network

William D. Bonner (chair)
Senior Research Associate
National Center for Atmospheric Research
Boulder, Colo.

Stanley A. Changnon
Principal Scientist and Chief Emeritus
Illinois State Water Survey
Champaign

Kenneth C. Crawford
Director
Oklahoma Climatological Survey
Norman

Nolan J. Doesken
Research Associate
Department of Atmospheric Science
Colorado State University
Fort Collins

Thomas W. Horst
Director
Surface Sensing Group
Atmospheric Technology Division
National Center for Atmospheric Research
Boulder, Colo.

Roy L. Jenne
Manager
Data Support Section
National Center for Atmospheric Research
Boulder, Colo.

Veronica F. Nieva
Vice President and Director
Organizational and Management Research Group
WESTAT Inc.
Rockville, Md.

David A. Robinson
Chairman and Graduate Director
Department of Geography
Rutgers University
New Brunswick, N.J.

RESEARCH COUNCIL STAFF

Floyd F. Hauth, Study Director

Mercedes Ilagan, Study Associate