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Today’s Weather Forecasts Are a Global Issue

Oct 18, 2004  •  Post A Comment

When it comes to reporting on weather issues for TV stations, much of the heavy lifting is ultimately done by the federal government’s National Weather Service.

With an annual budget of about $800 million, satellite technology and a far-flung staff of 4,800, the agency generates a veritable flood of information 24 hours a day, ranging from weather and climate forecasts to warnings about tornadoes, hurricanes, tidal waves and other potential disasters.

“All meteorologists use the same [National Weather Service] data,” said Bob Ryan, chief meteorologist for NBC-owned WRC-TV in Washington.

But the way the weather service sees it, its relationship with TV cuts both ways, with stations providing a vital conduit for NWS to get its information and warnings to the public that ultimately pays for the service with taxes.

“We certainly value the relationship we have with local stations,” said Ed Johnson, NWS director of strategic planning and policy. Indeed, according to Mr. Johnson, station weather personnel and the staffers at the 122 NWS local forecast offices usually consult each other often enough that they know each other’s names.

“We encourage them to call if there is an issue or a problem,” Mr. Johnson said. “It’s important for us that the media understand all of our products, especially ones related to public safety.”

Because NWS is the government’s official voice for weather warnings, its visibility rises dramatically when major weather disasters threaten.

High-Tech Weather

When Hurricane Ivan was terrorizing the Gulf Coast last month, the agency’s tracking satellite imagery appeared on station newscasts across the United States, with the data generated by the NWS National Hurricane Center on the campus of Florida International University in Miami.

As one measure of the public’s interest, the center’s Web site, at www.nhc.noaa.gov, generated more than 900 million hits when Ivan hit land Sept. 16.

Less well known is that NWS monitors the levels of the nation’s rivers through 13 river forecast centers every day, predicting floods and water supplies. Perhaps an even more obscure tidbit: NWS also monitors air quality and weather in space.

Of course, scientific and technological advancements have dramatically improved the ability of NWS to do its job (protecting “life and property and the enhancement of the national economy,” according to the NWS mission statement) since it was established Feb. 9, 1870, as an agency of the Department of War during the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant.

Nowadays, NWS uses supercomputers to analyze data generated by satellites, Doppler radar and a network of on-the-ground observers, then sends out alerts using high-speed communications technology.

As one measure of the agency’s increasing accuracy, NWS said its four-day weather forecasts today are as accurate as its two-day forecasts were 20 years ago. In addition, NWS said that over the past 10 years it has increased its lead time for tornado warnings by four minutes-from six minutes to 10.

Also of interest is that much of the NWS data is available on its Web site for free to anyone in the world with computer access. “That’s already paid when you paid for your taxes,” Mr. Johnson said.

Mr. Johnson said technological and scientific advancements are expected to improve the ability of NWS to forecast weather and climate changes.

“People all over the world dedicate their lives to [predicting weather-related disasters],” Mr. Johnson said. “Weather forecasting is a fundamentally global problem.”

Mr. Johnson also forecasts that the relationship between the NWS-now an agency of the Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration-and television will continue to be a strong one.

“There’s a mutual dependency between the weather service and the media,” Mr. Johnson said.