Executive Summary

The Cooperative Observer Network (the Coop Network) is a nationwide weather and climate monitoring network of volunteer citizens and institutions that observe and report weather information on a regular basis. The Coop Network is an important component of the National Weather Service's (NWS) data collection and is a vital component of the national observing capability for monitoring temperature, precipitation, snowfall, and other weather events across the United States. With a total annual cost of less than $10 million, the NWS Coop Program is an exceptional value in terms of benefits to the nation.

Data from the Coop Network represent a historical gold mine. For more than a century this network has provided a wealth of observations defining the climate of our country. Volunteer observers have joined forces with the federal government to provide one of the most comprehensive records of temperature and precipitation available anywhere in the world.

Although the network was initially established to serve agricultural needs, the applications of the data have expanded dramatically. Data from the network are now used in many ways, ranging from the management of water resources and the design and maintenance of infrastructure to predictions of crop yield and local weather forecasting. The data provided by cooperative observers are used in a myriad of important political and economic decisions all across the country by private industry, all levels of government, and private individuals.

Because of its stability over time and the geographic density of its observations, the network is particularly well suited for monitoring and detecting local, regional, and nationwide climate variations and changes. The growing recognition of the far-reaching economic and societal impact of climate variability and potential climate change reinforces the argument for maintaining the Coop Network.

Despite its increasing importance to the nation, over the past several years the Coop Network has been weakened by a combination of technological, organizational, and budgetary factors. The National Research Council's National Weather Service Modernization Committee established the Panel on Climate Record: Modernization of the Cooperative Observer Network to study the Coop Network from both the technical and operational/managerial standpoints, in the context of the ongoing modernization and restructuring of the NWS. The objective of the study was to identify actions that should be taken to strengthen the Coop Network so that it can continue to serve the nation in the next century as well as it has in the past. Key recommendations from the report are provided in this Executive Summary.

Two organizations, the NWS and the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS), manage the collection and most of the processing and dissemination of coop data. Both are agencies of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The NWS is responsible for overall management of the Coop Network and for observations—that is, for station operations, instrumentation, and documentation, the recruitment and training of observers, data collection and initial quality control, and the transmission of data to NESDIS. Within NESDIS, the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) is responsible for long-term stewardship of the data, which involves assimilating and archiving, final quality control, and the generation and dissemination of products derived from the data. The NWS uses coop data primarily for operational meteorology and hydrology; the NCDC uses the data primarily for climatological purposes.

The panel observed that differences in operational priorities and ineffective coordination between high-level NWS and NCDC (under NESDIS) managers in addressing budget and data deficiencies have exacerbated operational and fiscal support problems for the Coop Network and the Coop Program. There is a pervasive sense among participants and users of the network that overall program policy, long-term planning, and budgetary advocacy are inconsistent, at best. The panel concluded that management oversight by NOAA would improve this situation.



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--> Executive Summary The Cooperative Observer Network (the Coop Network) is a nationwide weather and climate monitoring network of volunteer citizens and institutions that observe and report weather information on a regular basis. The Coop Network is an important component of the National Weather Service's (NWS) data collection and is a vital component of the national observing capability for monitoring temperature, precipitation, snowfall, and other weather events across the United States. With a total annual cost of less than $10 million, the NWS Coop Program is an exceptional value in terms of benefits to the nation. Data from the Coop Network represent a historical gold mine. For more than a century this network has provided a wealth of observations defining the climate of our country. Volunteer observers have joined forces with the federal government to provide one of the most comprehensive records of temperature and precipitation available anywhere in the world. Although the network was initially established to serve agricultural needs, the applications of the data have expanded dramatically. Data from the network are now used in many ways, ranging from the management of water resources and the design and maintenance of infrastructure to predictions of crop yield and local weather forecasting. The data provided by cooperative observers are used in a myriad of important political and economic decisions all across the country by private industry, all levels of government, and private individuals. Because of its stability over time and the geographic density of its observations, the network is particularly well suited for monitoring and detecting local, regional, and nationwide climate variations and changes. The growing recognition of the far-reaching economic and societal impact of climate variability and potential climate change reinforces the argument for maintaining the Coop Network. Despite its increasing importance to the nation, over the past several years the Coop Network has been weakened by a combination of technological, organizational, and budgetary factors. The National Research Council's National Weather Service Modernization Committee established the Panel on Climate Record: Modernization of the Cooperative Observer Network to study the Coop Network from both the technical and operational/managerial standpoints, in the context of the ongoing modernization and restructuring of the NWS. The objective of the study was to identify actions that should be taken to strengthen the Coop Network so that it can continue to serve the nation in the next century as well as it has in the past. Key recommendations from the report are provided in this Executive Summary. Two organizations, the NWS and the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS), manage the collection and most of the processing and dissemination of coop data. Both are agencies of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The NWS is responsible for overall management of the Coop Network and for observations—that is, for station operations, instrumentation, and documentation, the recruitment and training of observers, data collection and initial quality control, and the transmission of data to NESDIS. Within NESDIS, the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) is responsible for long-term stewardship of the data, which involves assimilating and archiving, final quality control, and the generation and dissemination of products derived from the data. The NWS uses coop data primarily for operational meteorology and hydrology; the NCDC uses the data primarily for climatological purposes. The panel observed that differences in operational priorities and ineffective coordination between high-level NWS and NCDC (under NESDIS) managers in addressing budget and data deficiencies have exacerbated operational and fiscal support problems for the Coop Network and the Coop Program. There is a pervasive sense among participants and users of the network that overall program policy, long-term planning, and budgetary advocacy are inconsistent, at best. The panel concluded that management oversight by NOAA would improve this situation.

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--> Recommendation. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration should improve the overall management of the Cooperative Observer Program. One approach would be to establish a climate observations management office to oversee the activities of the of Cooperative Observer Program of the National Weather Service and National Climatic Data Center. This office would ensure that the Cooperative Observer Program is given a high priority by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Weather Service, and the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service. Operational management of the Cooperative Observer Network would continue to be the responsibility of the National Weather Service. The NOAA climate observations office, in conjunction with the NWS Coop Network and NCDC management teams, should perform the following functions: shape the current and future directions of the Coop Program, enlisting interagency support in planning, policy-making, and funding provide effective advocacy for the Coop Program in budgetary planning by NOAA, the NWS, and NESDIS work with other federal agencies and states that have cooperative observer programs and/or mesonets to develop a coordinated approach to the management and maintenance of the Coop Network and ancillary networks (including setting achievable standards for sensor performance, maintenance, and calibration) collaborate with regional climate centers and state climatologists to ensure that high-quality climate data and derived products are available to users on a timely basis and that they are properly archived The current Coop Network cannot be sustained at present funding levels. Modernization will require substantial new funds, not only for the acquisition of equipment, but also for ongoing operations and maintenance. Even with new appropriations, a mechanism for obtaining funds from other sources—including user agencies, the public, and industry—may be necessary for upgrading the current system. Perhaps the preeminent management issue for the future of the Coop Network is the question of ownership and stewardship—operation, management, and policy direction. Various other federal agencies that use cooperative data have been frustrated by the apparent low priority and lack of timeliness of cooperative data under NWS management. The NWS already has the infrastructure and the experience to operate the Coop Network successfully, provided the changes recommended in this report are made. Recommendation. The National Weather Service should improve its management of the Cooperative Observer Network. The demand for timely data on weather and climate is growing. Users should be able to obtain climate data from a single source. To ensure the consistency and reliability of data, the quality control, archiving, and first point of dissemination of validated data should be the responsibility of a single organization. By virtue of its facilities, experience, and expertise, NCDC is the organization best suited to manage these functions. Recommendation. The National Climatic Data Center should continue to be the focal point for archiving and disseminating cooperative data and should work with regional climate centers and state climatologists to disseminate data to all interested parties, making databases available in a timely manner. The National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service should make every effort to recover its costs for processing, copying, and providing data over the Internet. Given the substantial, long-standing interest shown by many federal agencies in the health of the Coop Network and in the use of its data, and considering that the NWS has had difficulties providing adequate operational funding, NOAA should look for a way to facilitate the participation of other agencies in the policy direction and support of the network. Recommendation. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration should work with other agencies to establish an interagency management council to guide and provide support (including funding) for the Cooperative Observer Network. The Office of the Federal Coordinator for Meteorology could administer the operation of this council. The Coop Network is comprised primarily of two types of stations. Nearly 5,000 ''climatological stations'' measure daily maximum and minimum temperatures, precipitation, snowfall, and the temperature and snow depth at the time of observation. Many observers at climatological stations include supplemental information in their reports, such as time of day when precipitation fell and weather conditions, such as fog, freezing rain, thunder, hail, and damaging winds. An even larger number of "hydrologic stations" provide data to the NWS for river and flood forecasting. Many hydrologic stations measure only precipitation and/or river stages. About 3,000 have instruments that measure hourly precipitation. The climatological and hydrologic stations, together with special-purpose stations in different regions of the country, comprise a Coop Network of nearly 12,000 stations. With a few important exceptions, the instruments used by cooperative observers have not changed significantly in the past century. For measuring liquid precipitation, observers at about 90 percent of the stations use standard 8-inch rain gauges (basically cans with dipsticks for measuring the water level in the magnifier tube) and record their observations by hand on paper forms. About 10 percent of stations use "recording" gauges that automatically weigh and record precipitation on a paper punch tape or analog chart. Two basic

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--> types of instruments are used to measure temperature, one liquid-in-glass and one electronic. All temperature observations are recorded manually on paper. The electronic thermistor used for temperature observations and its display equipment are becoming obsolete and increasingly difficult to maintain and calibrate. Once the measurements have been made, the data flow along different paths depending on the type of data, the frequency of reporting, and the capabilities of individual cooperative stations. Shortly after taking daily readings, observers at hydrologic stations phone or transmit their observations to NWS forecast offices as input for weather or flood forecasts and warnings; the data are recorded on paper forms. Observers at climatological stations also record temperature, precipitation, and other observations manually on paper forms. About 1,000 climatological stations phone in observations of maximum and minimum temperature, liquid precipitation, snowfall and snow depth, and present weather once a day. The paper data forms and rain-gauge tapes from both climatological and hydrologic stations are submitted monthly, by mail, to NWS forecast offices, where the NWS personnel responsible for Coop Network observations review them for obvious errors (preliminary quality control) and forward the forms and tapes to NCDC for further processing, storage, and dissemination. NCDC typically receives the data forms and paper tapes from NWS offices two to four weeks after the end of the calendar month. The combination of mail-based delivery of the data forms and paper tapes to NWS forecast offices and the limited staff time available at NWS offices for processing them means that the entire process is slow and inefficient. The slowness of this process is a growing problem for many users for whom the earliest availability of the data, even incomplete data, is increasingly important. Therefore, an obvious goal for upgrading Coop Network stations is improving and automating data transmission and collection as much as possible. The panel envisions a multilevel network that is upgraded according to three main priorities: (1) maintaining a network size and density that satisfies all major needs; (2) ensuring that the quality of the data remains high; and (3) making a large subset of the data available faster—preferably on a near-real-time basis—while continuing to archive data for long-term climatological purposes. Making data available to potential users faster must not compromise the quality of the data. In the interim, near-real-time users should be informed of potential inaccuracies that may not be detected until thorough quality control tests have been done. Standards for instruments and siting must be maintained throughout the Coop Network. Improved real-time digital communications between cooperative sites and local NWS forecast offices would significantly reduce the time between data collection and dissemination to a wide variety of users, including the NWS, on both a daily and a monthly basis. In addition, automated data transmission would permit the on-site storage of data that could be retrieved in the event of a communication failure. Finally, automated communications would permit more timely and better quality control, on-site, at NWS forecast offices, and at NCDC. Although the NWS has taken steps toward automating communications, so far only about 20 percent of stations have been involved. On-site data storage and quality control have not been part of the automation. Recommendation. Automating data communications between cooperative sites and local National Weather Service forecast offices should be the first step in automating the cooperative observer sites. The goal should be to make reporting data on at least a daily basis possible at all stations, even if data are still input manually. Automated data collection would have several advantages. It would eliminate manual input errors, increase the frequency of observations, allow midnight-to-midnight data summaries, enable more detailed data statistics (such as hourly means and variances), and permit collection of data from a wider variety of sensors. Because several thousand electronic temperature measuring systems are already in place, temperature is the obvious starting point for automation. Electronic precipitation gauges could be added later, as the technology becomes more reliable, accurate, and affordable. Other measurements, such as relative humidity and incoming solar radiation, could easily be added. Recommendation. Wherever feasible, cooperative stations should be provided with personal computers or data loggers for automated ingest of data from one or more electronic sensors. These personal computers or data loggers must be able to operate on battery backup power for at least 10 days and should have user-friendly interfaces for the manual ingest of data. Computers or loggers should also have an on-site error feedback mechanism and quality control during the manual input of data. In general, automated data recording will not replace cooperative observers. The panel is not recommending that the network be fully automated. Manual observations of precipitation types and amounts, snow depth, and supplemental information will be required for many years to come. Furthermore, observers must be available to serve as backups if automated procedures fail. The panel believes that automation should be implemented slowly and carefully, over a period of years, to allow time for both observers and NWS staff to be trained in the new procedures. Every effort should be made to ensure that the transition to new instruments does not cause a significant discontinuity in the climate record. Recommendation. New sensors should be introduced gradually across the Cooperative Observer Network. Changes in instrumentation should be tested at selected sites

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--> by thorough comparisons with the old instruments for at least a year. A number of mesonets at the local, state, and regional levels gather high-quality climatic data (except for measurements of snow and other forms of precipitation). In some cases, the density of a mesonet exceeds the density of the Coop Network in the area, and mesonet stations are often located where there are "holes" in the Coop Network. The panel concludes that mesonet stations could reasonably supplement or augment the current Coop Network, as long as they measure the proper weather variables; meet or exceed equipment, exposure, and data quality requirements; and agree to participate in the Coop Program. Recommendation. Mesonet stations that meet or exceed equipment and exposure requirements should be considered as supplements to, but not replacements for, the Cooperative Observer Network stations. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration should establish a mechanism for evaluating the performance and set instrumentation and data standards for mesonet stations. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration should establish cooperative agreements with states and other mesonet operating authorities. Mesonet operators who wish to associate their networks with the Coop Program should be required to commit to maintaining stations, data formats, and instrumentation that meet the standards of the Cooperative Observer Program for a fixed period of time. In return, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration should provide quality control, archiving, and dissemination of selected data from mesonet stations. As the Coop Network is modernized, flexibility to expand it and/or modify it should be built in. Although NOAA has developed a concept of a modernized NWS architecture, no comprehensive system planning architecture for surface observations comparable to the architectures for other atmospheric observations has been developed. Recommendation. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in cooperation with other agencies, should conduct an analysis of requirements for surface observations, with periodic follow-ups to develop requirements and specifications for a strong and viable surface observing system. The goal should be to develop and implement, over time, a comprehensive system planning architecture that ensures the effectiveness of the Cooperative Observer Network as part of a composite national surface observing system. This system architecture should be fully integrated with the other components of the overall National Weather System. The importance of climatic data gathered at Coop Network sites is increasing, along with the range of uses for these data. NOAA has an opportunity to build a modern system that can play an integral role in the nation's weather and climate information networks and to enhance the role the network already plays in matters relating to the health, safety, economic concerns, and general well-being of the nation. The recommendations in this report are neither difficult nor expensive to implement. If they are acted upon, they will bring this important national resource into balance with other surface observing networks so that the Coop Network can continue to play a vital role in the integrated National Weather System of the twenty-first century.