Anytime we think about taking a hike, a picnic or a trip, we check the weather. We rely on accurate predictions of sunny skies, chilly winds, or torrential rains to help us plan, no matter where we are.
The National Weather Service (NWS) is responsible for giving Americans this constant, important information. The federal agency monitors weather conditions across the United States, and it is the nation's official source for information related to forecasting, or predicting, the weather. It is located in Silver Spring, Maryland, alongside its parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
The NWS issues as many as 1.5 million forecasts per year. It provides heat advisories, thunderstorm warnings and tornado warnings to meteorologists. These weather forecasters then pass the warnings onto local TV, radio stations, the internet, or smartphone apps. Forecasters often consult NWS forecast maps and weather warnings when creating their own local forecasts.
Nearly 5,000 NWS employees operate at all times of day. Meteorologists, forecasters, hydrologists, and a handful of administrative and IT staff keep you, your family and your community informed at all times.
Watching Current and Developing Weather
In addition to reporting current weather conditions, the NWS also monitors developing weather conditions. Predictions of dangerous approaching weather can save lives.
For example, in May 2013, the NWS Storm Prediction Center anticipated severe weather in the state of Oklahoma, five days before an extremely powerful tornado hit the city of Moore. With each passing day, NWS' predictions got more accurate. Each day, it warned the storm was approaching and half an hour before touchdown, NWS issued a tornado warning. Even though 24 people were killed and hundreds were injured, the warning likely prevented many more deaths and injuries.
Observing and forecasting weather conditions is a big job. To make things simpler, the NWS has 122 separate weather forecast offices. They are located in all regions of the continental 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). Each office focuses on the weather in its surrounding 20 to 50 counties. The NWS forecasters also live where Americans do and are familiar with their region's weather patterns. That makes accurate forecasts more likely.
Geography Plays a Role in Forecasting
The NWS also issues forecasts especially for recreation spots, such as mountain summits, lakes, and beaches. These areas can be tricky. Approaching weather systems might interact with the geography of higher elevations or waterways to create unique weather conditions.
Forecasters observe stations and webcams close to these spots. This allows them to show you the weather in real-time. Hikers can also check NWS "mountain point forecasts" for a summary of the winds, temperatures, and rain or snow they might find at the tops of high mountains.
Likewise, water-enthusiasts might like to consult "marine point forecasts." These 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 the nation covered.