The National Weather Service (NWS) is the federal agency responsible for monitoring weather conditions across the United States. Headquartered in Silver Spring, Maryland, alongside its parent agency the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NWS issues as many as 1.5 million forecasts per year. If an American gets their weather from a local TV or radio station, the internet, or their smartphone’s weather app, chances are NWS data was used to create that forecast. This is because the NWS is the United States' official source for weather forecast information, much like NASA is its official source for all things outer space. Thunderstorm warnings, tornado warnings, winter-storm warnings—each of these originates with the NWS, and meteorologists nationwide pass them on to the viewers and listeners in their respective communities. In fact, forecasters, no matter what organization they work for, often consult NWS forecast maps and weather warnings (which are free and accessible via the NWS website) when creating their own forecasts.
In providing the public with up-to-the-minute forecasts, the NWS operates 24 hours a day. This means that the organization’s nearly 5,000 employees (including meteorologists, forecasters, hydrologists, and a handful of administrative and IT staff) largely do too. Whether it is midday or the middle of the night, NWS meteorologists are poring over weather data to help keep you, your family, and your community informed and safe.
NWS monitors not only current weather but developing conditions as well. In May of 2013, as early as five days before the EF-5 tornado struck Moore, Oklahoma, the NWS Storm Prediction Center and its weather forecast office—both based in Norman, Oklahoma—determined that a severe weather outbreak would soon be likely to develop in the state. Two hours before the tornado touched down, a tornado watch was issued, and half an hour before the tornado struck Moore, a tornado warning had been issued for the city. Had NWS not forewarned the public, the 24 fatalities and hundreds of injuries sustained by Moore residents would have undoubtedly been higher, especially since the tornado struck Plaza Towers Elementary School around the time the school would have been dismissing.
Observing and forecasting weather conditions across the United States and its territories is a big job. To streamline this task, the NWS is split into weather forecast offices, of which there are 122 sprinkled across the eastern, southern, central, and western regions of the United States as well as Alaska, Hawai'i, and the U.S.-Affiliated Pacific Islands (composed of three U.S. territories (American Samoa, Guam, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands), and three independent countries (the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Republic of Palau). Because each office only focuses on the weather in its surrounding 20 to 50 counties, and because NWS forecasters live where Americans do and are familiar with their region’s weather patterns, you get the most accurate forecasts possible.
National Weather Service forecasts are not just good for staying a step ahead of storms and deciding what to wear to work or school. They also cater to your leisure-weather needs. NWS issues recreational forecasts—forecasts that inform the public of weather conditions at recreational points of interest, such as mountain summits, lakes, and beaches. Since weather at these locations can vary greatly from city weather, forecasters closely monitor weather observing stations and webcams in the vicinity of these tourist spots in real time. They also consider how approaching weather systems may interact with the geography of higher elevations or waterways to create unique weather conditions. It is all a part of the NWS’ mission to preserve life and property—a mission that includes keeping you safe as you plan outdoor adventures. Avid hikers can monitor NWS “mountain point forecasts” for a summary of the winds, temperatures, and rain or snow they may encounter at the tops of significant mountain peaks. Likewise, water-enthusiasts might like to consult “marine point forecasts,” which notify communities near lakes, rivers, and coasts of water-related hazards, including winds, rip currents, wave heights, and flow rates.
No matter the occasion or the weather, the National Weather Service has us covered.