The National Weather Service Turns 150

On February 9, 2020, the National Weather Service celebrated the 150th anniversary of its formation. While many people are aware of the important services that this agency provides in support of its mission to protect lives and property, you may not be aware of some of the unique history of the agency, the role it has played in our history, and how technological advances have helped to improve the science of weather forecasting by leaps and bounds in the last 150 years.

A history of the organization

Although many prominent and not-so-prominent individuals in our country’s history made a daily habit of taking weather observations, there was no centralized, concerted effort on the part of the U.S. Government to issues forecasts or warnings until nearly 100 years into our nation’s history. Although many of our founding fathers closely followed the weather and documented local weather, perhaps the most famous of these is Thomas Jefferson, who documented weather conditions for over 50 years.

Excerpt from Thomas Jefferson’s weather observations. Courtesy: Library of Congress.

By the turn of the 19th century, it was recognized that compiling regional weather observations and understanding larger scale weather patterns could be useful in forecasting the weather. Volunteer weather observers have always been invaluable to scientists to take ‘field measurements’ and advance the understanding of how the atmosphere works. In 1849, Joseph Henry, who was the first director of the Smithsonian Institute, developed a small network of trained volunteer weather observers who took observations of temperature, precipitation, and other weather parameters. Mr. Henry was one of the first to recommend the creation of a National Weather Service. In 1869, Wisconsin congressman Halbert E. Paine wrote a bill which created the National Weather Service under the domain of the U.S. Signal Service. We will discuss the important role of the telegraph in the next section, which details important technological advances that were invaluable to meteorologists. On February 9, 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant signed a joint congressional resolution which formed the National Weather Service.

Ulysses S. Grant

Although weather forecasts were issued and disseminated via telegraph, the state of the technology in the late 1800s severely limited the ability of weather forecasters to a) understand the science which drives atmospheric circulations, and b) develop accurate and timely forecasts based upon current weather observations. Remember, at this time there were no upper air measurements, satellite data, radar, and the primary means of measuring the atmosphere was by surface observations. Finally, in 1940, the National Weather Service was moved under the domain of the U.S. Department of Commerce, where it still resides today.

Major technological advances in the last 150 years

It is nearly impossible to discuss the history of the National Weather Service without discussing how important the development of better instrumentation, and of course, computers, have been. In this NOAA article, the most important inventions that improved weather forecasting are discussed. We discuss a few of them here.

Upper air measurements were first taken back in 1894. The general principles, though updated over time as technology improved, remain much as they did back then. An instrument package is attached to a balloon, which rises through the atmosphere and samples conditions at many levels. The balloon eventually pops, at which point a parachute is deployed and the package descends back down to earth. Occasionally these instruments are found by the general population. These observations, taken globally, provide a three-dimensional picture of the atmosphere twice a day. The data are fed into computer forecast models around the world and used by forecasters individually as well.

During World War I, the National Weather Service first began issuing forecast for various military and air mail aviation routes. Eventually, the relationship became reciprocal as aircraft were outfitted with observing instrumentation and could automatically submit the data back to the National Weather Service.

Courtesy: NASA.

In 1928, the teletype machine replaced the telephone and telegraph as the primary means by which weather information was transmitted in real time.
In 1958, perhaps the most dramatic advancement yet in weather observations occurred with the introduction of satellites. Suddenly, it became possible to ‘see’ weather systems out over the open ocean, where surface observations were not possible except on ships. The advances to forecast skill soon followed, as scientists could issue warnings well in advance of both tropical and extratropical weather systems. Today, the instrumentation available on our current satellites are used and relied upon by forecasters for forecasting and issuing warnings on a daily basis. The utility of various satellite channels and discussion of what types of information they provide will be the subject of a future blog!

Courtesy: National Weather Service.

The availability of radar was almost as game-changing for the science of meteorology as was the satellite era. The military had been using radar for operations since the 1940s, and once the original military radars had exhausted their purposes, they were adapted for meteorological purposes and donated to the NWS. The deployment of Doppler Radar during the late 1980s and early 1990s allowed forecasters to ‘see’ rotation in storms, and the latest dual-polarization technology now gives forecasters the ability to better forecast precipitation type in winter storms. These technologies will also be discussed in a future blog!

Looking to the future

As the National Weather Service looks to the future, its focus is on creating a Weather-Ready Nation in which communities and individuals are prepared and informed before and during inclement weather, and responsive and resilient after an event occurs. The focus is now not only on disseminating crucial weather information, forecasts, and warnings, but in helping people understand how to receive and make appropriate decisions based upon that information. The National Weather Service continues to pursue partnerships with key agencies, companies, and individuals in support of its mission. Shade Tree Meteorology continues to be a Weather-Ready Nation Ambassador, and we are committed to disseminating important information and preparedness practices to help you make decisions to minimize the impact of hazardous weather and keep you, your colleagues, and your loved ones safe. If there is a question you have or topic you would like to see covered in our blog, feel free to reach out to us on our Facebook page or by email (found on our website) and we can do a future blog post on your topic!

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