Term Paper: History of the National Weather Service

Pages: 6 (1908 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 1+  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Weather  ·  Buy This Paper

National Weather Service (NWS) is a government agency that affects every resident of the United States in important ways. Because of its skill in predicting extreme weather such as hurricanes and tornadoes, potentially thousands of lives have been saved. However, most people don't realize that the NWS has a somewhat checkered history.

Government leaders have been interested in predicting and recording the weather since shortly after the first colonists arrived in what would become the United States. A Swedish military chaplain living in what is present-day Delaware started keeping a weather diary in 1644. Such diaries were the main source of information about weather through the early 19th century (Waite, 2004). Many of the early Founding Fathers, including Franklin, Washington and Jefferson, recorded weather conditions (Waite, 2004). It wasn't until 1814, however, that the United States Government began to systematically gather weather data, a job assigned to the U.S. Army Surgeon General and his medical corps assigned to barracks and forts across the country (Waite, 2004).

Individual states also attempted to gather useful weather information. Pennsylvania was the first, in 1838, although that program did not last long. However, in 1849, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. established a network utilizing telegraphs to gather weather information (StormFax, 2004). This information was plotted on a map that was put on display at the Smithsonian Institution for the public to see.

In 1856, a scientist by the name of William Ferrel predicted the circulation of both ocean currents and winds around the world (StormFax, 2004), using a mathematical model. By 1860, the United States had 600 weather stations that made systematic weather observations. However, the onset of the Civil War interrupted the telegraph communications necessary to maintain the network, and it fell apart (StormFax, 2004).

In 1863, the Commissioner of Agriculture began the publication of a "weather and crop bulletin" (StormFax, 2004). After the end of the Civil War, the Army Signal Service established a weather service to warn of storms along the ocean coasts and the Great Lakes. The Army recognized that the weather could have significant military importance (Larson, 1999).

Unfortunately, the fledgling Army weather service was soon beset by scandal. In 1881 the chief financial manager, William Howgate, was charged with, and ultimately convicted for, embezzling what was a small fortune at the time -- $250,000. To put this into perspective, the entire military budget for that year was about $40 million. Other servicemen at various weather stations were charged with "reckless neglect," and others embezzled from the agency in various forms: one sold the scientific equipment to pay off his gambling debts, while another used the Army facilities to take photographs of nude women (Larson, 1999).

In spite of these abuses, the country's leaders recognized the need for accurate weather information, and in 1870 President Ulysses S. Grant directed that the Secretary formally establish an army weather service (StormFax, 2004).

By 1890, the scandals within the Army's weather service had become intolerable, Congress directed the Department of Agriculture to form the U.S. Weather service, called the "Weather Bureau" (Larson, 1999). Among the things this agency tried were attempts at rainmaking, by floating balloons into the atmosphere that then exploded (Larson, 1999). While that sounds silly now, at the time the Department of Agriculture had an interest in preventing or ending droughts. The new Weather Bureau also began alerting the public to the risk of floods (StormFax, 2004). In 1895, the Weather Bureau began producing the first daily weather maps (StormFax, 2004), and in 1898 President McKinley directed the agency to develop a system for hurricane warnings. This agency took recorded temperature, air pressure, rainfall, clouds, and wind speed (Larson, 1999).

While the 1800's were marked by scandal, graft and corruption, the 1900's were characterized by ever-growing scientific breakthroughs. By 1900, the Weather Bureau was sharing what information it gathered with Europe using the transatlantic cable (StormFax, 2004). By 1902, the Weather Bureau was providing weather information to ships at sea (StormFax, 2004).

In 1909, the Weather Bureau began using weather balloons released into the atmosphere in order to gather data (StormFax, 2004), and in 1910 they began providing weekly forecasts for farmers. They also began tracking drought and rain conditions for the Western part of the country. By 1914, the Bureau was providing information for the growing number of airplane pilots, and in 1916, the Bureau added the "Fire Weather Service" to its departments (StormFax, 2004). Thus, the governments growing interest in weather forecasting reflected the growth of new technologies. By 1931, the Weather Bureau was using airplanes to gather information at altitudes as high as 16,000 feet (StormFax, 2004).

As time passed, the U.S. Weather Bureau continued to refine its services. In 1934, they established an "Air Mass Analysis" section, based on research developed by Norwegian meteorologists and an approach that significantly improved the accuracy of weather forecasts (StormFax, 2004). The following year they added data collected by instruments in buoys placed strategically in the ocean (StormFax, 2004). And by 1937, the Bureau had developed weather balloons that could rise to 50,000 feet, ending the need for meteorological aircraft flights (StormFax, 2004).

In 1940, the U.S. Weather Bureau was moved to the Department of Commerce. However, it continued to work closely with the military, and in 1942, the U.S. Navy supplied 25 aircraft RADARS that were redesigned so they could be used from the ground. In 1948, the Weather Bureau joined the budding "computer age" by making its first forecasts using an early computer, the ENIAC (StormFax, 2004). Also, in 1948, weather forecasters for the Air Force issued the first tornado warnings to military bases (StormFax, 2004).

In one of the most significant steps forward for the United States, in 1951, the Weather Service Warning Center began operating at Tinker Air Force Base near Oklahoma City, OK. This operation eventually developed into the National Severe Storms Center (StormFax, 2004), which would provide advance warning of tornadoes so people could get to safe shelter in time. This was augmented in 1952 by the Severe Local Storm Forecasting Unit, originally based in Washington, D.C., but later moved to Kansas City, Missouri (StormFax, 2004). Meanwhile, the Air Force continued to develop radar for weather forecasting. In 1954, they launched specially-designed radar called an/CPS-9 (StormFax, 2004) which further improved severe storm predictions. The U.S. Weather Bureau followed the next year with a numerically-based prediction tool called the Barotropic Model (StormFax, 2004).

Weather forecasting was making some headway in the area of tornado warnings, and in 1959 the Miami (Florida) based hurricane forecast center installed weather radar. This type of weather radar predominated until Doppler radar was developed (StormFax, 2004). Military and domestic weather concerns joined again in 1960 when the Air Force launched the first satellite for weather prediction purposes (TIROS 1) in 1960. That year the Bureau also added air pollution advisories for the eastern United States. In 1965 the issue of air pollution was addressed more directly with the establishment of the Environmental Sciences Service Administration (ESSA), under the Department of Commerce. This agency used information from several sources, including that from the Weather Bureau (StormFax, 2004).

1970 brought major re-organization; ESSA became the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), with the U.S. Weather Bureau now renamed the National Weather Service, as part of NOAA (StormFax, 2004). In 1975, satellite technology made a major jump forward when a geostationary satellite that could stay positioned over one spot on the globe was launched (StormFax, 2004). However, one of the most significant technological breakthroughs for weather forecasting was put into operation in 1988 when the first Doppler weather system was activated in Norman, Oklahoma. Called NEXRAD, it used WSR-88D (Weather Surveillance Radar 88 Doppler) to spot major storms more precisely and sooner than ever before (King, 2004). This system, still in place today, improved forecasting for severe weather and flash flooding, because it can measure how heavily precipitation is falling. It us used for aircraft as well as warnings to residents in the path of dangerous storms, for use by military bases, for agricultural use and forest management (King, 2004). In 1991 the use of WSR-88D radar was expanded to Florida (StormFax, 2004).

Today's National Weather Service provides crucial information not only to residents of the United States but for the airline industry, cruise industry and major national concerns such as NASA. NASA has a special "Meteorology Group" at their space center in Houston. It is they who decide whether the weather is safe for a launch, and whether the space shuttle can return safely. These decisions are crucial because neither final launch decisions nor final landing decisions can be changed once started. The Space Shuttle functions as an engineless glider, and once they have started to land they do not have engine power to return to altitude and fly to another landing site, unlike a commercial airliner (McEnamin, 1996).

While the National Weather Service, in all its forms, has worked hard to give people as much warning as possible about… [END OF PREVIEW]

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