The National Weather Service (NWS), which turned 150 years old in 2020, is the backbone of forecasting in the U.S. To fulfill its mission “to protect life and property,” teams of meteorologists across the country issue an array of products every day, several times a day, that help people get ahead of the weather. These products also help businesses, like the trucking industry, save time and money.
A brief history
The precursor to the NWS dates back to 1849, when the Smithsonian Institution supplied weather instruments to telegraph companies and established an extensive observation network.
By the end of that year, 150 volunteers throughout the U.S. were reporting weather observations to the Smithsonian on a regular basis. By 1860, 500 stations were providing daily telegraphic weather reports to the Washington Evening Star, with several state weather agencies jumping on the bandwagon.
In February 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant signed a law creating a new National Weather Service within the U.S. Army Signal Service’s Division of Telegrams and Reports.
In 1890, Congress, at the request of President Benjamin Harrison, passed a bill transferring the meteorological responsibilities of the Signal Service to the newly created U.S. Weather Bureau in the Department of Agriculture.
In 1940, the Weather Bureau was transferred to the Department of Commerce. Then, in 1970, the Environmental Science Services Administration (ESSA) became the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Weather Bureau became the National Weather Service.
With 122 Weather Forecast Offices (WFOs) across the country, 13 River Forecast Centers (RFCs), and other support offices such as the Storm Prediction Center (SPC), Climate Prediction Center (CPC) and Weather Prediction Center (WPC), the NWS collects and analyzes more than 6.3 billion observations per day, and issues about 1.5 million forecasts and 50,000 warnings each year.
Over the decades, NWS services and products evolved as technology made fine-tuned forecasting attainable. Some of the most notable advances came during the latter half of the 20th century.
From the 1960s through the 2010s, major improvements were made to satellite and radar technology, as well as computing power used in forecast modeling. In addition, an Automated Surface Observing System (ASOS) replaced manual weather observations. The Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System (AWIPS) allowed communication among forecast offices, as well as distribution of centrally collected data. AWIPS also offered field forecasters access to the data provided by the other new technologies.
Protecting drivers and the bottom line
When it comes to weather, the main goal of carriers and fleet managers is to steer drivers away from dangerous conditions. Accidents can affect a company’s bottom line, and sending drivers into high-impact storms puts their lives at risk, in addition to the lives of other people on the roads.
Jonathan Hunter, Weather Department manager at Covenant Logistics Group, told FreightWaves that winter weather — especially ice storms — is the most challenging. Hunter is constantly “plugged into” several NWS products to stay ahead of the game.
“I look at a lot of daily forecasts … the hazard products are very helpful: the warnings and the watches,” Hunter said.
Hunter and his staff go beyond using standard NWS forecast text and graphics.
“With the weather routing tool we’ve developed, we actually tap into a product that the National Weather Service provides, called a grib file,” Hunter explained. “It is packed full of data for all these tiny, little one-by-one squares throughout the country, and they will give you forecasts up to a week in advance.”
(Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)
Hunter said that since the start of the weather program at Covenant in 2003, winter weather accident costs have dropped from more than $5 million a year to only around half a million dollars last winter, the best on record. Granted, last winter wasn’t terrible across most of the U.S., but Hunter still credits much of the driver safety success to the Weather Department and its application of NWS information.
“I really see that public-facing products from the National Weather Service have improved immensely in just the past five years,” Hunter added. “I think we’re going to see this kind of next level of good weather communication coming out just because of all of that movement.”