AWIPS gets a final OK

Secretary William Daley this month approved the final deployment plan for 152 weather
stations.


The announcement brought a collective sigh of relief from National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration officials, who have battled for full deployment of the $520
million system for the past two years.


But the struggle to field AWIPS, a one-time presidential priority system, goes back
roughly a decade to NOAA's original plan to modernize the government's weather systems.


NOAA officials view AWIPS, the system that pulls together information gathered by other
new data collection systems, as the modernization's core program. But over the years,
budget overruns and changing systems specifications led to delays in fielding the system.


"We have been working for quite some time with the Commerce Department and also
with the congressional oversight group," said Mary Glackin, modernizations systems
manager for the National Weather Service. "And everybody was in agreement that it was
time to move ahead on this."


AWIPS, which runs on Hewlett-Packard Co. 750 and 755 series workstations, uses multiple
windows that let forecasters examine different aspects of weather patterns.


"The feedback I get from our offices that already have AWIPS is that it's an
outstanding tool," said Jack Kelley, NOAA assistant administrator for weather
services. "Before AWIPS, our forecasters relied on three or more systems to view the
information needed to produce forecasts and warnings."


The system has been deployed at a dozen NOAA field offices for about a year, and at 21
other locations since last month.


"This decision is a significant milestone in our commitment to the American people
to finish the modernization and restructuring of the National Weather Service," Daley
said. "Our forecasters can take full advantage of the many modern technologies we've
added and serve the public more effectively."


AWIPS taps into 120 Doppler radar systems and 264 automated ground observation systems
nationwide. AWIPS also provides images from two stationary weather satellites that monitor
the United States and the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.


The system lets forecasters overlay data from multiple sources on one screen or a pair
of screens. Without AWIPS, forecasters have to use input from several sources to come up
with an overall weather picture.


Though NOAA and National Weather Service officials said the older method of forecasting
is accurate, AWIPS will save time and, in some cases, lives.


The Salt Lake City NWS field office was among the first 12 sites to test the system,
which got quite a workout when storms spawned by El Ni'o hit the West Coast. Bill Alder,
chief meteorologist in the Salt Lake office, said more rain besieged the area last year
than had in any other year in a century.


Forecasting the storm fronts took as little as an hour because AWIPS displays radar
data on high-resolution monitors and overlays that data with computer-generated numerical
information and satellite images. Alder said an extra hour's warning is invaluable in
flash-flood-prone areas.


AWIPS also lets field office forecasters send and receive data from other weather
stations through a satellite broadcast service. The weather feed is also available to the
private sector and educational facilities.


Company officials of AWIPS contractor, Litton PRC Inc., said the system's strength lies
in its open architecture, which lets the weather service refresh the system easily. The
AWIPS equipment being rolled out to sites now are 30 percent faster than prototypes
fielded at test locations, Litton PRC officials said.


"Completing the National Weather Service modernization is the top priority at the
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration," said James Baker, undersecretary
for oceans and atmosphere. "AWIPS lets our forecasters display weather data in a
variety of ways, quickly analyze evolving weather systems, and issue timely forecasts and
warnings for the protection of life and property."


About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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