Weather agency open to the pub­lic

Cen­ter of­fers tours of its 5-year-old pre­dic­tion cen­ter in Col­lege Park

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NEWS - By Michael Dresser

COL­LEGE PARK – Judy Bay­lor peered in­tently over Bruce Sullivan’s shoul­der Satur­day as the vet­eran me­te­o­rol­o­gist showed her how he uses the tools of his trade to pre­dict the course of hur­ri­canes over the At­lantic and rain in the Pa­cific North­west.

Bay­lor and her hus­band, Ernie, were among hun­dreds of visi­tors who turned out as the Na­tional Cen­ter for En­vi­ron­men­tal Pre­dic­tion threw open its doors to the pub­lic for the first time since it moved into its gleam­ing build­ing in Col­lege Park for the first time since it moved there five years ago.

Sur­rounded by brightly col­ored dis­plays on mul­ti­ple com­puter screens at the cen­ter, Sullivan showed the course of Hur­ri­cane Jose as it trav­eled well out to sea along the At­lantic coast. He and his fel­low sci­en­tists were hope­ful it would peter out in the North At­lantic as what they call a “fish storm.”

Sullivan ex­plained that fore­casts have become much more ac­cu­rate than they were when he started with the fed­eral agency in 1980. “Now my three-day fore­cast is as good as my one-day fore­cast was 20-30 years ago,” Sullivan said.

The Bay­lors, cu­ri­ous Columbia res­i­dents with an in­ter­est in weather science, joined dozens of em­ploy­ees of the cen­ter and other arms of the Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Administration who brought their fam­i­lies along for a look at what they do. “Oh, my gra­cious!” Judy Bay­lor ex­claimed. “There’s so much to take in. This is great!”

The visi­tors toured Sullivan’s weather fore­cast­ing desk along with other oper­a­tions at the cen­ter that track ocean waves and tem­per­a­tures, green­house gases in the at­mos­phere and other sci­en­tific in­di­ca­tors of the health of the planet.

NOAA and its agen­cies, in­clud­ing the Na­tional Weather Ser­vice, have been at the fore­front of the news in re­cent weeks as Hur­ri­cane Har­vey drenched Texas and Hur­ri­cane Irma pounded some Caribbean is­lands and Florida.

Den­nis Sta­ley, chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer of the en­vi­ron­men­tal pre­dic­tion cen­ter, said the tim­ing of the open house was a co­in­ci­dence. He said the event marked the fifth an­niver­sary of the cen­ter’s move into its cur­rent quar­ters in the Univer­sity of Mary­land’s Dis­cov­ery District off the main cam­pus. “We thought it was time to show the lo­cal com­mu­nity what a na­tional as­set this is,” Sta­ley said. He said NOAA and its agen­cies em­ploy 4,000 to 6,000 peo­ple in the Bal­ti­more-Washington area, 800 of them at the cen­ter.

Among those who turned out was the di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Weather Ser­vice, Louis W. Uc­cellini. His job was to de­liver re­marks and to cut the rib­bon as the cen­ter cel­e­brated the in­stal­la­tion of a new weather imag­ing sphere. Visi­tors crowded into a dark­ened room where the sphere de­pict­ing global weather and other pat­terns seemed to hang in midair. As the sphere re­played the hur­ri­cane ac­tion of past weeks, Uc­cellini pointed to the spot where Irma de­vel­oped an eye vis­i­ble from satel­lites. “When you have that sym­me­try about the eye, that’s a bad storm,” Uc­cellini said.

The open house came at a time when NOAA is in po­lit­i­cal and bud­getary crosshairs. The agency has long been one of the gov­ern­ment’s lead agen­cies in study­ing cli­mate change. But now it re­ports to Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, who has scorned the no­tion of hu­man in­volve­ment in the planet’s warm­ing trend as a Chi­nese hoax.

Trump has pro­posed a 16 per­cent bud­get cut for NOAA, in­clud­ing re­duc­tions for hur­ri­cane and tor­nado fore­cast­ing, though it is by no means sure that Congress will go along — es­pe­cially af­ter Har­vey and Irma. At least one of the cen­ters on the tour, the Air Re­sources Lab­o­ra­tory, would be elim­i­nated un­der the Trump bud­get. The lab tracks such phe­nom­ena as toxic mer­cury in the at­mos­phere and green­house gases over the na­tion’s cap­i­tal.

Of­fi­cials of NOAA and its agen­cies treated the sub­ject of global warm­ing with cau­tion Satur­day. “We do not do pol­icy with re­spect to cli­mate,” said Ariel Stein, act­ing di­rec­tor of the air lab. “We do the science.”

Other of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing Sta­ley, em­pha­sized that the cen­ter is in the busi­ness of short- to medium-range weather pre­dic­tions — noth­ing more than a year out. But Craig McLean, as­sis­tant ad­min­is­tra­tor of NOAA, said the agency is still in the busi­ness of long-range cli­mate change re­search un­der man­dates from Congress. “That work is ab­so­lutely still go­ing on,” he said.

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