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Date: Feb. 18, 1999
Contacts: Molly Galvin, Media Relations Officer
Brad Bortone, Media Relations Assistant
(202) 334-2138; e-mail <>


Publication Announcement

Greatly Improved National Weather Service Envisioned,
But Strategic Partnerships, New Technologies Are Needed

Weather forecasts and warnings have improved dramatically in the past several years, and major scientific advances and innovative technologies under development promise to enhance weather services significantly in the coming decades. As the National Weather Service gathers more sophisticated data and adapts advanced modeling systems for daily operations, better forecasting will likely spur new markets for weather and environmental information. For example, commercial providers might use the data to develop forecasts targeted toward the transportation, agricultural, or forestry industries. Forecasts could be developed to predict environmental hazards in the atmosphere, or solar storms and their impact on electric power distribution, communications, and navigational equipment.

To keep up with the rapid pace of scientific and technological innovation and ensure that services will be more useful and reliable in the future, the National Weather Service should develop a long-term plan to aggressively incorporate new developments in weather analysis and predictions, says a committee of the National Research Council in a new report, A Vision for the National Weather Service: Road Map for the Future. These advances have the potential to bring "enormous benefits to the nation" by greatly improving the quality, accuracy, and timeliness of weather forecasts and data, the report says. The report is the last in a series of major reviews — conducted by the Research Council since 1990 — of Weather Service modernization and restructuring efforts.

The success of the Weather Service will depend largely on its ability to develop sophisticated models of the atmosphere, which will require state-of-the-art computers and modeling programs. Congress and the White House should provide support for procuring and maintaining high-level supercomputer capabilities. Several other countries already have such systems, which are fundamental for advanced weather forecasting.

Moreover, the Weather Service should actively support and participate in national and international research enterprises in weather, hydrology, climate, and the environmental sciences, the committee said. The agency should continue taking the lead in encouraging international cooperation in exchanging data, which will provide the foundation for global weather forecasting. In addition, strategic partnerships should be formed nationally with other government agencies, commercial weather services, and research laboratories, the committee said. Such partnerships would enable a much broader variety of users to benefit from weather data.

Rather than periodically overhauling operations, the Weather Service should introduce new technologies gradually to avoid organizational upheavals and eliminate obsolete equipment as needed, the report says. An adequate research and development staff should be maintained at national weather centers to regularly evaluate alternative technologies and rapidly test new forecasting concepts. Independent engineers and scientists should provide guidance throughout the process.

The committee envisioned several types of services that might reasonably be available by 2025 if the Weather Service builds on scientific and technological advances. Some examples are:

Providing detailed global forecasts and models. Because improved satellite data would be more widely available at lower costs, a worldwide information network could be formed through which weather centers analyze atmospheric and ocean patterns to predict precipitation systems, tropical cyclones, thunderstorms, heavy rainfalls and snowfalls, turbulence, air pollution, and other phenomena. Short-term forecasts would be highly automated and their accuracy would be greatly improved.

Predicting long-term climate conditions and monitoring air quality. Two-year forecasts of climate conditions would be made regionally. Such forecasts could be used to identify the best times for planting crops or an appropriate location for a business. In addition, modeling capabilities could track atmospheric movement of ozone, carbon monoxide, aerosols, and other chemicals that affect human health. Environment officials would use these data to create forecasts that help people avoid dangerously high levels of pollutants.

Improving severe-weather warnings. Special high-resolution models will run in real time as hurricanes, blizzards, or other threatening storms move into an area. Although these models will be similar to those used today, they would be far more powerful, covering much larger areas and using more sophisticated data. Information from these models would be used not only for warnings, but also for environmental monitoring and water resources management.

The study was funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, non-profit institution that provides independent advice on science and technology issues under a congressional charter. A committee roster follows.

Read the full text of A Vision for the National Weather Service: Road Map for the Future for 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 site or 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).

Commission on Engineering and Technical Systems
National Weather Service Modernization Committee

Panel on the Road Map for the Future National Weather Service