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Observations describing the current state of the atmosphere and or river conditions are the basis of severe weather and flood warnings as well as fair weather forecasts. Daily, the National Weather Service collects a multitude of such observations from surface and upper-air stations across the country. Satellites, offshore buoys, aircraft, volunteers aboard seagoing vessels, and other sources contribute many more thousands of observations. The collected data is exchanged with most of the other countries in the world that collect similar observations.

Currently, complete weather observations are collected at 260 National Weather Service facilities by some 1,200 people who contribute at least part of their time to this effort. Scheduled observations routinely absorb a significant amount of staff time; but the workload increases dramatically during severe weather, just at a time when the observer needs to devote more time to the preparation and dissemination of warnings and special statements.

The goal of the Automated Surface Observation Systems (ASOS) program (also begun in the early 1980's) is to develop and implement a flexible and modular unit to monitor the weather automatically. Using modern technology, these systems, expected to be deployed across the country by the early 1990's, will automatically acquire, process, store, format, and distribute weather observations like atmospheric pressure, temperature, visibility and precipitation.

A key component of the automated weather observing systems of the future will likely be the result of a NOAA research program begun in the mid-1980's to develop a ground-based system to continuously measure vertical profiles of atmospheric conditions like wind speed and direction, temperature and humidity. In 1986, NOAA signed a major, multi-million dollar contract with the Sperry Corporation to build a 30-unit demonstration network of the first component of such a system -- the Wind Profiler. Once operational testing of this system is completed in the early 1990's, NOAA expects that the Wind Profiler could complement (and in some areas, replace) the labor-intensive weather balloon network and become an integral part of the modernized Weather Service.

In addition to the development of new technologies, the 1980's have seen significant improvements in weather forecast skills as a result of advances in computer modeling. Advanced models, developed by NOAA's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL) and the Weather Service's National Meteorological Center (NMC), can now be run on new Class VI supercomputers. A particularly promising recent development in the area of weather modeling was a GFDL model which couples atmospheric and oceanic conditions and processes into a single interactive model designed to simulate and then predict average weather conditions out to 30 days.

Oceanic and Atmospheric Research

NOAA has also made considerable progress in the related area of climate research and prediction during the 1980's. Probably the most visible, and most significant, effort in this area is the international Tropical Ocean-Global Atmosphere (TOGA) program which officially began in fiscal year 1984. This program, and predecessor supporting research initiated in the 1970's, is designed to provide an understanding of the role that the tropical Pacific Ocean plays in determining climate changes over North America. The principal focus of the program is the El Nino, an unusually strong warming of equatorial Pacific waters which, when coupled with an atmospheric phenomenon known as the Southern Oscillation, (a global-scale see-saw in atmospheric pressure between Indonesia-North Australia and the Southeast Pacific), can cause dramatic changes in the earth's climate patterns. The 1982/1983 El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) event was the strongest in history and as newspaper and television reports told us, was responsible for nearly $20 billion in economic losses worldwide - from flooding in coastal California to droughts in Africa and Australia. NOAA's scientific foresight and planning enabled the Agency to track and document the '82/83 event in greater detail than ever before and establish the foundation for a monitoring network and computer modeling capability which will allow scientists to recognize the signals of and eventually predict the phenomenon. High on NOAA's scientific priority list, the development of such a predictive capability will not only produce considerable economic savings but, will also be one of the most significant scientific achievements of modern times.

NOAA's research in the 1980's is also leading the way in the area of studies on longer-term climate changes and air quality. Building on a strong history of research in atmospheric chemistry, NOAA took another bold step forward in 1985 with the initiation of a research program referred to as Radiatively Important Trace Species (RITS). NOAA had, for years, been a leader in research on the causes and potential effects of carbon dioxide on the earth's climate (the so-called "greenhouse warming" problem). In the early eighties, however, NOAA researchers led the way for the scientific community by recognizing the fact that there are also other so-called "greenhouse gases", like methane and the chlorofluorocarbons currently implicated in the debate over stratospheric ozone depletion, which also appear to be increasing in the atmosphere. NOAA scientists estimate that the global greenhouse warming from these gases could be as great as, and additive to, that expected from carbon dioxide. NOAA was the first to justify the need to understand the reasons for the increasing abundances of these gases and develop a capability to predict the potential climatic and chemical consequences of such changes. The RITS program remains the principal coordinated agency attack on this scientific challenge and environmental problem.

A scientist from NOAA's Aeronomy Laboratory led an Antarctic Ozone Expedition to McMurdo Base in late 1986 to investigate the Antarctic ozone hole. The results showed highly elevated abundances of reactive chlorine compounds, reduced levels of nitrogen oxides, and 40 percent depletion of ozone at 12-20 km altitude. The role of the chlorinated and brominated compounds now seems somewhat more likely and that of the solar cycle seems less likely. Since the cause of the ozone hole had not been established with certainty, NOAA also led a second expedition in 1987 and a NOAA scientist has also been chosen as mission scientist for an interagency aircraft observation program to fly through the ozone hole in 1987.

These examples illustrate NOAA's role as the Federal Government's principal operational climate observing, prediction and information management agency. These activities characterize NOAA's unique role and contribution to an evolving national and international scientific program to understand and predict natural and man-made changes in the global environment. Joining the other principal U.S. participants in these efforts, NASA and NSF, NOAA has chosen to focus on the global climate system because changing climate confronts us with significant economic, health and safety, and national security implications. Involving activities across the agency, current NOAA programs in oceanic and atmospheric observations, monitoring, data processing, research, predictive modeling, and information management represent a substantial and unique Federal capability and will serve as the foundation for NOAA's global environmental predictions programs in the 1990's and beyond.

The National Acid Precipitation (Acid Rain) Act of 1980 brought yet another leadership role for NOAA. NOAA, along with DOE and EPA, co-chairs the interagency National Acid Precipitation Task Force which oversees the ten-year research effort to address this serious problem. The Act designated NOAA as "Director of Research" and specifically assigned the Agency with research responsibility in three areas:

• natural sources and causes of acidity;

• defining and assessing the relevant atmospheric processes that link emissions of pollutants with acid deposition; and

• interpreting the deposition mechanisms that bring acidic pollutants to the earth's surface and assessing the severity and extent of such acid deposition.

Publication of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NOAA Central Library.

Last Updated: June 8, 2006 9:24 AM

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