Paleo-NOAA and Neo-“NOAA”

The sun appears to be rising in the East this morning…

… but that sliver of the world concerned with Earth observations, science and services is atwitter about a proposed NOAA move from its current home in the Department of Commerce into the Department of Interior. Google a phrase like “noaa interior department” and you’ll find some of the articles and blog posts – one from the NRDC (opposed), and one from Jason Samenow of the Capital Weather Gang (slightly positive). The latter provides abbreviated versions of the mission statements for the institutions, allowing you to match and compare. More such material will surely appear.

Of course, when sea change like this is underway, those swept along by it find it difficult to develop and maintain perspective. Sometimes it’s helpful to look back in history – or even pre-history.

Climatologists and social scientists are doing a lot of such work these days in service of a world undergoing climate change. Society asks questions: what will be the change in temperatures, precipitation patterns, and more? What will be the impact on wild and managed ecosystems? And what will be the effect on seven billion human beings? Can we accept these implications? If not, how hard should we work to head off such change or to prepare? To help answer such questions, paleo-climatologists look at climates long ago, extending back in some instances to pre-history or even to the longer geologic record. Using proxies (the carbon dioxide levels in air bubbles trapped in glacial ice cores, pollen, tree-ring data, and much more), they’re piecing together a picture of changes over past centuries and millennia. Anthropologists are examining the effect of changes over the past few thousand years on human settlement and activity.

In wondering what the future holds for NOAA, we might similarly search for clues from the past. It turns out even a quick run through snippets of that history give us a feel for what we might expect. [And if you want more authoritative background – strongly advisable! – locate and read a copy of A. Hunter Dupree’s classic Science in the Federal Government, a history of policies and activities to 1940. (1957, 1986). Or read some of James Fleming’s work. You can find more about him and about those sources listed here.]

Let’s start with one piece of today’s NOAA – meteorological services in the federal government. The earliest milestone folks usually list is the U.S. Army in the war of 1812. James Tilton was then Surgeon General. Concerned about what he saw as a link between the environment and soldiers’ health, he required his surgeons to maintain weather records so that they might be compared with the medical data.

Next stop on our whirlwind journey? The Smithsonian Institution, pre-Civil War. Back in that day you could stroll over to the Castle on the Mall and find a daily weather map, assembled by telegraph reports from across the United States. [The invention of the telegraph – the Victorian Internet – more than any scientific advance – spawned meteorological services across all the developed countries of the world during this period.] However, this service was short-lived. The Smithsonian’s Secretary, Joseph Henry, stoutly believed that with its limited resources, the Smithsonian should maintain no activity that could or should be taken up by others. The start of the Civil War interrupted the supply of data to the south and west of Washington, the source of much of our weather here. And a fire in the Castle also compromised the service.

During the Civil War, an army surgeon by the name of Albert Myer (Fort Myer bears his name) founded the Signal Service. By war’s end, Signal Service personnel numbered in the high hundreds. They were even using horse-drawn wagons bearing huge spools of wire to run telegraph lines out onto battlefield to provide needed intelligence for the Union Army. Of course, just as in today’s contemplated drawdown of forces following our hoped-for withdrawal from the Middle East, the army at that time faced cutbacks. Myer found himself, a general, with less than a dozen staff.

Awkward. He needed a new mission and found it in the reestablishment of a national weather services.  [There’s much to learn from this chapter but for now we’ll move on.]

During the 1880’s Congress grew restive with the role of science agencies in the government. They viewed them as out of control, unresponsive to the will of the Congress. They set up a special commission, under the leadership of Senator William B. Allison of Iowa, who conducted a two-year investigation. Special targets? The U.S. Geological Survey, under the leadership of John Wesley Powell, the Naval Hydrographic Office, the Survey of the Coast (do any of these names seem familiar?) – and the Signal Service. In addition, Secretary of the Army Robert Lincoln felt the Signal Service’s weather function had no business being in the military [Again there’s more nuance to this narrative.]

The outcome? Government weather services were moved from the U.S. Army into the Department of Agriculture in 1890.

Makes sense, doesn’t it? Farmers’ need for weather information exceeds that for any other economic sector. [Read the 1891 organic act and you find quaint but nonetheless pointed reference to serving cotton interests…]

Or maybe only matches. The passage of time made it increasingly evident that public safety in the face of weather hazards, support for aviation and other transportation, and other national concerns merited federal emphasis. These and other drivers prompted the move of the Weather Bureau from Agriculture to Commerce in 1940, where it sits today. [We’ve paid short shrift to the development of a parent agency, NOAA, within Commerce, but the president himself alluded to that background in his remarks on Friday, and the fuller story is available to us from the oral tradition of elder employees still working in the agency. Similarly, we could have unpacked the path of other NOAA elements and found the same kind of journey.]


What’s the take-away from all this?

There are myriad lessons, but here are just a few. First, this kind of agency mobility is nothing new, despite loud political cries and claims to the contrary. Moreover, while each such change seemed momentous, maybe even chaotic, to those participating at the time, it seems to have done the agency little lasting harm…in fact, we usually feel in hindsight that the change was good. There’s a sweet spot between instability and stifling, suffocating sameness. The task of each generation is to find it. This means you and I shouldn’t get too attached to the label: “NOAA,” or “ESSA,” or“National Weather Service,” or “Weather Bureau.” Agency names are ephemeral, and the name NOAA will be no exception.

Second? Historically, pretty much at each step (and between the steps) the NOAA mission is evolving in importance, complexity, scope, and urgency. Most especially, it is continually broadening.  This is the second lesson. NOAA and agencies like it focused on Earth observations, science, and services are necessary to national hopes and aspirations. The country demands more from these agencies with each passing year, just as we ask more from children as they pass first into adolescence and then into adulthood. If and when NOAA moves from Commerce to Interior, a merger with the United States Geological Survey probably won’t be far behind. An integrated approach to the Earth system, comprehending the atmosphere, oceans, solid earth, and ecosystems, as well as space weather, has much to recommend it.

But there’s a third, competing lesson from history. The American people have wanted this scientific capability organizationally close to the problem it’s intended to solve. Experience has shown that this closeness is tied to responsiveness. [Witness the arguments proposed over the years to move the weather research components of NOAA within the National Weather Service. And so on.] As we grow more aware that Earth observations, science and services are threaded throughout the entire national agenda, this becomes more problematic. But as the need for solutions to urgent problems across the board becomes more compelling, policymakers, journalists, and the public will grow more strident in their demands for such responsiveness.

This means we’ll see a comprehensive agency with storefronts in the customer agencies. There are already examples of this: National Weather Service employees and units embedded within the Federal Aviation Administration, and within the Department of Agriculture. We will also see a continuing effort to develop the fuller, more strategic collaborations linking the government to the private sector service providers.


Under whatever label, from whatever organizational niche…coping with these two demands… (1) to be more comprehensive, holistic, and longer-term in approach, and (2) to be responsive to needs that are acute, highly localized, often sector-specific, and dispersed nationally and globally, will be the greatest challenge of the agency and its government- and private-sector partners.

Establishing, and then sustainably investing in such an agency, so that it can do its great work, will be one of the great 21st-century challenges for America, its political leaders, and its people.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Paleo-NOAA and Neo-“NOAA”

  1. Tom Pagano says:


    As I’ve traveled overseas, I’ve been surprised at how nearly every government seems to organize its environmental services differently from others. Some have one giant “department of water”, others have water split among 250 different groups. It is hard to say that one model is universally better than any other, so it should be no surprise that agencies occasionally change up the way they do things. That said, those that know about it overseas tell me that the USGS streamflow data program is envied by other countries because one agency can serve data freely for the whole nation.

    Additionally, I’ve recently been surprised to learn about the government programs that used to exist but no longer. Specifically I’m thinking of 4 now-extinct River Forecast Centers. People nowadays know about the acronym ESSA because it turned into NOAA and still exists today. But what about the ESSAs that didn’t turn into anything else? It’s a bit like, if you went your whole life without knowing someone that died, you would think everyone lived forever… and be shocked and confused the first time someone did pass away.

    Given your comment: “The American people have wanted this scientific capability organizationally close to the problem it’s intended to solve”, I’m curious to get your thoughts on how well it works when operations and research (and/or regulation?) get blended into one organizational unit? NOAA research serves NWS operations “in house”. How well do other groups do, e.g. how well is the USDA served by the Agricultural Research Service? Does the research that goes on inside the Bureau of Reclamation get put into practice? The Army Corps?

    Clearly, not all the operational innovations come from in-house research, nor does all in-house research get used. But is the adoption rate relatively higher?

    The River Seers –

    • William Hooke says:

      Thanks, Tom…

      for a very thoughtful comment. I wish I could answer the questions you raise! Here’s the closest I’ve ever come. It’s a mistake to see the choice as either-or. The fact is, to achieve research progress on complex and long-range issues requires that research can’t be too embroiled in day-to-day service provision. But for short term problems, it helps to have some researchers embedded in the operational environment. And so on the national problems that matter, you want researchers in both settings.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *