US weather agency in College Park opens its doors to public
Sep. 30, 2017
COLLEGE PARK, Md. (AP) — Judy Baylor peered intently over Bruce Sullivan's shoulder on Sept. 16 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.
In a subsequent interview, Uccellini said one purpose of the open house was to build public confidence in what federal weather scientists are doing.
"We depend upon our taxpayers and our citizens, but we are also serving them," he said.
The open house came at a time when NOAA is in political and budgetary cross-hairs. 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.
Had the open house occurred a year ago under President Barack Obama, climate change would likely have been an important theme of the event. But that Saturday, officials of NOAA and its agencies treated the subject with caution.
"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.
Climate change appeared to be far from the mind of 4-year-old Jordan McGlone of Bowie, who visited with his mother, Jamese Sims, a NOAA employee. Like many of the parents there, she was hoping to nurture an interest in science in her child.
"I try to expose him to as much as I can with regard to STEM," Sims said, using the acronym for science, technology, engineering and math.
Jordan said his favorite part was playing a part in releasing a weather balloon, which shot up in the air as he watched it disappear into the brilliant blue sky.
Information from: The Baltimore Sun, http://www.baltimoresun.com