The mission of the National Weather Service (NWS) is to “provide weather, water, and climate forecasts and warnings for the United States, its territories, adjacent waters and ocean areas, for the protection of life and property and the enhancement of the national economy. NWS data and products form a national information database and infrastructure which can be used by other governmental agencies, the private sector, the public, and the global community” (NWS, 2011b). Public, marine, and aviation forecasts are provided routinely by the NWS, as well as unscheduled short- and long-fused advisories and life-saving warnings when conditions warrant. Seasonal and longer-term climate forecasts and warnings are also provided by NWS, and its observations are a critical part of the long-term climate record.1
In the 1980s, it became clear that to take advantage of new technologies in the most cost effective manner, and to provide better weather services to the nation, the NWS needed to change. The concept of a modernized and restructured weather service with a single tiered office structure, as contrasted with the existing two-tiered structure, emerged. A central part of this plan would be to replace the network of Weather Service Forecast Offices and Weather Service Offices with Weather Forecast Offices (WFOs), with principal staffing by professional meteorologists supported by meteorological technicians. Each office would have roughly the same size staff and area of responsibility—an area sized to allow for effective outreach and coordination with the user community, including the media and emergency management agencies. It was determined that about 120 WFOs evenly distributed across the country would be adequate to provide the services required.
In addition to the forecast office changes, important technological changes were planned and implemented. Surface meteorological observations would be automated and improved, allowing for the redeployment of staff positions to result in a workforce focusing on severe weather forecasts and warnings, and user community outreach. A Doppler radar network would be designed to give as complete national coverage as possible. The National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS) would develop and deploy a new series of satellites in both geostationary and polar orbits. Computer upgrades would allow the National Meteorological Center (NMC) to continue to improve numerical weather prediction products used by the forecaster as guidance in forecast and warning development. Finally, an advanced data processing and communications system would be the heart of the redesigned NWS forecast office, providing an interactive display and work platform with access to all data and information from radars, surface and upper-air observations, satellite imagery, and output from the NMC. Data from local networks would also be accommodated
1 Climate describes the variable aspects of the air-water-land surface system that operate at time scales longer than weather, typically beyond two weeks to a month. Thus a climate record is a long term (multiple years) record of observation data for temperature, precipitation, and other variables. Routine NWS climate forecasts include 6- to 10-day climate forecasts, 8- to 14-day forecasts, monthly forecasts, and seasonal outlooks with lead times of 12.5 months. Climate warnings include hazard assessments, drought outlooks, and warnings of emerging large-scale climate patterns such as El Niño and La Niña.
(NWS, 1989, 1990). The comprehensive strategy for reorganizing the field office structure and upgrading observing and forecasting technologies would be called the National Weather Service Modernization and Associated Restructuring (MAR).
Between 1989 and 2000, the nation invested an estimated $4.5 billion to implement the MAR (GAO, 1997a, 1998a). New observational and computational systems were planned and deployed, and the NWS field office structure was redefined around new concepts for observing, forecasting, and service delivery to capitalize on the investments in these new systems. The NWS workforce was restructured around these concepts and substantial investments in training and recruitment developed a more professional workforce with the skills necessary for the modernized NWS. Overall, the MAR led to a greater integration of science into weather service activities and improved outreach and coordination with state and local government, emergency management, local media, and communities. The technological improvements provided forecasters with a wealth of new data and observations, allowing them to provide more accurate and timely forecast and warning services for time scales of minutes to weeks, time scales that were the focus of the MAR.
The MAR was officially completed in 2000. No comprehensive assessment of the execution of the MAR plan, or comparison of the promised benefits of the MAR to its actual impact, has been conducted. Therefore, Congress asked the National Academy of Sciences to conduct an end-to-end assessment that addresses the past modernization as well as lessons learned to support future improvements to NWS capabilities (U.S. Congress, 2009; Box 1.1).
This report contains Phase I of the committee’s work, a retrospective assessment of the entire NWS modernization program with a focus on lessons learned from the effort to plan, deploy, and oversee the modernization. Phase II of the committee’s work will be presented in a later report. Phase II will apply the lessons learned in Phase I to provide NWS with recommendations on how best to plan, deploy, and oversee future improvements.
BOX 1.1 Committee on the Assessment of the National Weather Service’s Modernization Program Statement of Task
During the 1980s and 1990s, NOAA launched a major program to modernize the National Weather Service (NWS), investing $4.5 billion to modernize NWS technologies to advance weather forecasting. No complete assessment of the entire end-to-end NWS modernization enterprise has been done, thus Congress has asked the National Academy of Sciences to conduct an assessment of the now-completed National Weather Service modernization. The project should not only address the past modernization, but also focus on lessons learned to support future improvements to NWS capabilities. It should address high-impact weather and new science and technologies that allow for even better forecasts; the integration of new technologies and better models into NWS operations; workforce composition and structure; and improving current partnerships with private industry, academia, and other governmental agencies. Finally, the project should provide advice on how NWS can best plan, deploy, and oversee these future improvements based on lessons learned from the NWS modernization.
The committee was formed in the fall of 2010 and will complete their charge over the course of approximately two years. To carry out the first part of its charge, the committee held three in-person meetings during which they heard input from a range of stakeholders and participants in the MAR. The committee reviewed the literature, oversight reports, NWS documents, and other relevant information, and met by phone. A critical aspect of the committee’s information gathering process was visiting several WFOs. Each committee member visited their local WFO, spoke with staff about their perspectives on the MAR, and saw the MAR technologies in action. In addition, the committee sent a questionnaire to WFOs colocated with university or other research facilities to assess the effects of the MAR on weather research and the transition of research-to-operations, as well as the partnership between NWS and academia. This report is an assessment of the MAR and, as such, only considers technologies and other aspects of weather services that were officially part of the MAR planning and execution, as described in the Strategic Plan (NWS, 1989). With the passage of time some records of events relevant to the MAR have gone
missing, and many of the people involved are no longer with us. That makes it difficult for the committee to reconstruct a comprehensive history, and some gaps in this assessment are therefore inevitable.
This report is organized chronologically. Chapter 2, Pre-Modernization Environment and Planning, summarizes the state of weather observation and forecasting technologies, as well as NWS operations and organizational structure in the 1980s. Finally, the chapter describes both the Execution Objectives and the Promised Benefits of the MAR. Chapter 3 describes the Execution of the Modernization and Associated Restructuring, comparing it to the Execution Objectives discussed in Chapter 2, and covering the period from 1989 to 2000. The discussion is structured around six major elements of the MAR: (1) management and planning; (2) modernization of technology; (3) restructuring of forecasts offices and staff; (4) national centers; (5) partnerships; and (6) oversight and advisory groups. Chapter 4 describes the Impact of the Modernization and Associated Restructuring, comparing the results of the MAR with the Promised Benefits discussed in Chapter 2, and covering the period after 2000. The discussion is structured around the same six components as Chapter 3, as well as a discussion of some additional impacts. Both Chapters 3 and 4 present specific Findings about the major aspects of the MAR. Finally, Chapter 5 presents the committee’s Key Findings about the MAR as a whole and an assessment of the lessons learned from the committee’s analysis of the execution and impact of the MAR.