BY the late 1990s when the National Weather Service (NWS) completes its modernization program, its field offices will have undergone a major technological face lift.
The program, which Congress approved in 1989, includes revamping the present local- weather-forecasting office structure in what agency spokesmen say will result in a dramatic improvement in weather services nationwide.
"It's a very pervasive modernization of the agency in terms of the technology, the work- force capability, just across the board," says Steve Short, who as NWS transitional director is responsible for overseeing the program.
Currently, the NWS has three national centers, including the Severe Storms Forecast Center in Kansas City, the National Hurricane Center near Miami, and the National Meteorological Center in Camp Springs, Md. It also has 47 offices (one in almost every state) that handle forecasts and distribute storm watches, and about 200 smaller offices that use those forecasts and issue storm warnings for their local areas.
The new NWS will still have its national centers but will consist of 115 field offices that will be responsible for both forecasts and warnings for the counties in their areas. More professional meteorologists will be needed to staff the 115 offices. Each office will have a Doppler radar and a high-powered computer system (see story on Page 12). In addition, about 1,500 airports will be equipped with new automatic-surface observing systems that will provide offices with data such as temperature, barometr ic pressure, and wind direction every minute. That data, which observers now gather manually, and in some areas only during the day, will be fed automatically into computers and broadcast by computer-generated voice to aircraft.
"The primary thrust is toward more science in the system," says Frederick Ostby, director of the National Severe Storms Forecast Center (NSSFC) in Kansas City. "In that regard there's going to be much more interrelationship between the weather service and universities in research."
Because it feels that local offices will have the technology and staff to make all weather predictions by the end of the decade, the NWS plans to move the severe-storm-watch responsibility from the NSSFC to the 115 offices. The center would likely relocate to Norman, Okla., to be near university meteorological research. Its 20 aviation forecasters would stay in Kansas City. Meteorologists here have unleashed a storm of protest over the proposals.
"There's no way it can be handled yet that way," says Jack Hales, lead forecaster at NSSFC. Mr. Hales believes forecasting severe storm watches requires full-time specialists. Decentralizing "this function into many different offices in each state to try to have everybody have the time, experience, and the ability to keep up with what's happening and fluidly keep ahead of it would be a very difficult job."
But Ronald McPherson, director of the National Meteorological Center, says, "The local meteorologist is going to have available the best set of tools, including radar and the knowledge of the local area. There's no question in my mind that moving the watch function to the local forecast offices is going to result in a much, much better watch arrangement than we have from a national center."