NOAA Historical Background

October 1970. President Richard M.. Nixon was on his way to the Middle East when Egyptian President Nassar died. The Pittsburgh Steelers were putting a lot of faith in their new rookie quarterback, Terry Bradshaw. The top grossing movie of the month was Tora! Tora! Tora! - and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a new federal agency to observe, predict and protect our environment, was born.

In a July 1970 statement to Congress, President Nixon proposed creating NOAA to serve a national need "...for better protection of life and property from natural hazards...for a better understanding of the total environment...[and] for exploration and development leading to the intelligent use of our marine resources..." On October 3, NOAA was established under the Department of Commerce.

More than 30 years later, NOAA still works for America every day. From providing timely and precise weather, water and climate forecasts, to monitoring the environment, to managing fisheries and building healthy coastlines, to making our nation more competitive through safe navigation and examining changes in the oceans, NOAA is on the front lines for America.

In hours of crisis, NOAA employees have been found issuing the tornado warnings that saved hundreds of lives from a deadly storm, flying into the eyes of hurricanes to gather information about possible landfall, fighting to free three grey whales trapped in the ice, fielding a massive scientific operation on the shores to guide the comeback from an oil spill, and monitoring by satellites the movement of hurricanes and other severe storms, volcanic ash and wildfires that threaten communities.

19th Century Beginnings
Separate pieces, each with a rich history, joined together to make NOAA the original whole earth agency. In fact, many of NOAA's components have 19th century origins.

NOAA's charting piece, which evolved into the National Ocean Service, began at the turn of the 19th century when President Thomas Jefferson, a true NOAA pioneer, established the first science agency of the United States: the Survey of the Coast. The Survey of the Coast changed its name to the Coast and Geodetic Survey in 1878 to reflect the role of geodesy. Today NOS still helps people find their position on the planet by managing the National Geodetic Survey, which specifies latitude, longitude, height, scale, gravity, and orientation throughout the nation. Aviation safety, in particular the orientation of runways, depends on this system. When the Washington Monument was covered in scaffolding for renovations in 1999, NGS surveyors confirmed the height and stability of the structure. NOS has been a leader in the introduction of electronic nautical charts which, together with GPS, has enhanced the safety and efficiency of navigation on the nation's waterways.

More than a century later NOS has evolved into the nation's principal advocate for coastal and ocean stewardship. As the trustee for 12 marine protected areas, NOAA protects National Marine Sanctuaries, which are akin to national underwater parks. Each sanctuary has a unique goal. While one may protect the breeding ground of humpback whales, for example, another preserves the remains of historical shipwrecks, and still another protects thriving coral reef colonies. Through the sanctuary program, a growing number of partners and volunteers embrace NOAA's ocean ethic—to preserve, protect and respect our nation's marine environment.

Environmental Data and Satellite Images
Before the Revolutionary War, Thomas Jefferson acted as an unofficial weather bureau, collecting records from such distant points as Quebec and from as far west as the Mississippi. Perhaps Jefferson's data collection work inspired the Surgeon General of the Army to order hospital surgeons during the War of 1812 to take observations and keep climatological records.

Today, NOAA's cooperative weather observers, comprising a network of more than 10,000 National Weather Service volunteers across the country, continue the tradition of taking daily weather measurements that become part of our climate records. These records, along with other records from the NWS, U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force, the Federal Aviation Administration, and meteorological services around the world, are housed at the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C. The center, the largest active archive of climate data in the world, is part of NOAA's National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service. In addition to the climate center, NESDIS also operates the National Geophysical Data Center in Boulder, Colo., and the National Oceanographic Data Center in Silver Spring, Md. Scientists from around the world use data from these centers to study our environment.

NOAA's satellite operations grew out of the space program and the desire to study our earth from a vantage point high in the sky. As NOAA entered its 30th year, its satellite program celebrated the 40th anniversary of Tiros-1, the first weather satellite. In the past 40 years, NOAA's satellites have evolved from weather satellites to environmental satellites. Data are used for applications related to the oceans, coastal regions, agriculture, detection of forest fires, detection of volcanic ash, monitoring the ozone hole over the South Pole, and the space environment.

From Weather Bureau to Weather Service
When Congress transferred weather services from the Army to the new Department of Agriculture in 1890, the Weather Bureau, a new civilian weather service and ancestor of NOAA's NWS, was born. By the end of the century, the Weather Bureau published its first Washington, D.C., weather map (1895), established the first hurricane warning service (1896) and began regular kite observations (1898). Today's NWS uses complex technologies such as weather satellites, Doppler radar, automated surface observing systems, sophisticated computer models, high-speed communications systems, flying meteorological platforms, and a highly-trained and skilled workforce to issue more than 734,000 weather and 850,000 river and flood forecasts, and between 45,000 and 50,000 potentially life-saving severe weather warnings annually. Last summer, the weather service deployed the Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System, the final piece of technology in a $4.5 billion modernization program to improve climate, water, and weather products and services that help protect life and property and enhance the economy. One estimate is that the NWS's highly accurate long-range predictions for the 1997-98 El Niño episode, helped California avert about $1 billion in losses.

NWS data is a national resource. Government agencies, private companies, the media, universities and the public all use NWS data.

Protecting Fisheries and Marine Mammals
The fishing industry has been important to the United States since its earliest days. NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service, or NOAA Fisheries, is the direct descendant of the U. S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries, the nation's first federal conservation agency, initiated in 1871 to protect, study, manage and restore fish. Woods Hole, Mass., became home to the first marine fisheries research lab and is still home to one of NOAA's five fisheries science centers.

More than a century later, NOAA Fisheries is committed to taking a rational, scientific approach to the difficult, contentious issues of living marine resource management. As stewards, NOAA Fisheries manages for the sustainable use of living marine resources, striving to balance competing public needs and interests in the use and enjoyment of those resources while preserving their biological integrity. Two recent examples include international and domestic actions to rebuild swordfish stocks, working with both industry and conservationists; and developing an innovative, long-term strategy for restoring threatened and endangered salmon in the Pacific Northwest.

NOAA Research
In 1882 the U.S.S. Albatross, the first government research vessel built exclusively for fisheries and oceanographic research, launched both a future for NOAA's research programs and a fleet of research vessels. Today, the scientists of NOAA's Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, or NOAA Research, along with their university partners, work to better understand the world in which we live. NOAA Research is where much of the work is done that results in better weather forecasts, longer warning lead times for natural disasters, new products from the sea, and a greater understanding of our climate, atmosphere and oceans. NOAA research is done not only in what many would consider traditional laboratories, but also aboard ships, aloft in planes, and beneath the sea in the world's only undersea habitat. NOAA research tools can be as high-tech as supercomputers or as basic as rain gauges. Officers of the NOAA Corps, the smallest of the seven uniformed services of the United States, operate NOAA's fleet of research vessels and aircraft.

Legacy Continues
From 19th century beginnings to more than 30 years as a federal agency, NOAA has evolved into a science agency with conservation management and regulatory responsibilities. The agency looks forward to the challenges ahead while continuing to observe, monitor, and collect information about our world in a quest to both protect the environment and improve the human condition.

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Updated January 2002