Behind the Forecast: Behind the National Weather Service

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Science Behind the Forecast: Behind the National Weather Service

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - The National Weather Service is a key part of the procurement and dissemination of important weather information but the full extent of their role is still unknown to many.

The National Weather Service was created in 1870. Back then, it was a part of the U.S. Army’s Signal Service’s Division of Telegrams and Reports for the Benefit of Commerce.

It became a civilian agency on October 1, 1890, when responsibilities were transferred from the Signal Service to the newly minted U.S. Weather Bureau in the Department of Agriculture. In 1891, they became responsible for issuing flood warnings to the general public. In 1909, The Weather Bureau began its free-rising balloon observations program.

The Weather Bureau became part of the Environmental Science Services Administration when that agency formed in August 1966. The Environmental Science Services Administration was renamed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on October 1, 1970; this was when the Weather Bureau officially became the National Weather Service.


The National Weather Service (NWS) Headquarters is located in Silver Spring, MD. There are six Regional Headquarters: Eastern, Southern, Central, Western, Alaska, and Pacific; there are also River Forecast Centers (RFCs), Center Weather Service Units (CWSUs), and National Centers for Environmental Prediction. The NCEP is made up of nine distinct centers including the Aviation Weather Center, Climate Prediction Center, National Hurricane Center, Storm Prediction Center, Space Weather Prediction Center, Weather Prediction Center, Ocean Prediction Center, Environmental Modeling Center, and NCEP Central Operations. NCEP is the starting point for nearly all weather forecasts in the United States.

Tornado Watches and Severe Thunderstorm Watches are issued by the Storm Prediction Center. They also issue daily outlooks that break down the threats of severe weather. The Categorical Outlooks rank severe weather threats from Marginal to High. They also break down the risk of specific threats including tornadoes, wind and hail.

Map of the NWS forecast offices and their areas of responsibility.
Map of the NWS forecast offices and their areas of responsibility. (Source: National Weather Service)

The National Weather Service has 122 Weather Forecast Offices (WFOs) across the country; ours is based in Louisville. These offices cover a specific area, sometimes spanning counties in several states. They handle the circulation of forecasts and alerts in their coverage area. These include local forecast grids, tornado and severe thunderstorm warnings, flood, flash flood, and winter weather watches and warnings and some aviation products.

The NWS also has 13 River Forecast Centers, nine National Centers, and other support offices, which collect and analyze more than 76 billion observations and they release about 1.5 million forecasts and 50,000 warnings each year.

Forecasters build their forecasts with observations from surface stations, weather balloon readings, and satellite data. All of this data is inputted into numerical weather, water, and climate models. National Weather Service forecasters communicate this information and potential impacts to the public, emergency managers, broadcast meteorologists and other organizations to help make decisions that save lives and protect property across the country.

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