The last three decades have been a period of great change within NOAA. In Transformations, we tell the stories of recent changes in our missions, technologies, and ways of doing business. These stories reveal the NOAA of today: an organization that continues to evolve to meet the needs of the American people.

The Modern Era

Birds at Elkhorn Slough

Marine protected areas, or MPAs, are one tool NOAA uses to manage marine resources. MPAs come in all shapes and sizes. Here, birds congregate along Elkhorn Slough harbors, the largest tract of tidal salt marsh in California outside of San Francisco Bay.

We’ve come a long way since 1970, when NOAA was officially recognized and all of our components united under a common name and mission. The past 37 years have brought dramatic changes in almost every aspect of our lives—personal, professional, and civic. This era saw the end of the Cold War; the birth of the microcomputer, the Internet, and instant communications; the start of the environmental movement; and the development of a deeper understanding of our universe, our Earth, and our biological selves. Several of these “revolutions” had profound effects on NOAA.

Going Green


NOAA’s goal of restoring dangerously low stocks of whales has resulted in gains for most species and a thriving boon to coastal community’s whale-watching industry.

With the 1970s came the explosion of the environmental movement. Amidst rising concerns over our planet’s health, Congress passed a suite of legislation aimed at protecting environmental resources. Five of these laws were dedicated to marine resource conservation and provide NOAA with specific direction: the Marine Mammal Protection Act; the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act; the Coastal Zone Management Act; the Endangered Species Act; and the Fisheries Conservation and Management Act.

Taken together, these laws established a very strong legislative and programmatic underpinning for major new initiatives in living marine resource management, marine sanctuaries, endangered species, and coastal management, forging NOAA’s stewardship activities. Within a relatively short period, we assumed new roles and responsibilities that made us part of the nation’s “green” revolution.

Over the past three decades, the “green” side of NOAA has grown, with increasing emphasis on building partnerships with local and state governments and organizations and taking broad, ecosystem approaches to managing coastal and marine resources.

Technological Advances

Image shows precipitation for the Rocky Mount area

NOAA researchers have developed the Local Analysis and Prediction System, or “LAPS,” which integrates data from virtually every meteorological observation system into a very high-resolution gridded framework. This image shows precipitation for the Rocky Mountain region.

Some changes within NOAA have been spurred by technological advances outside of the agency. Increasingly fast and powerful computer systems have allowed us to create more sophisticated computer simulations, or models. Scientists can now incorporate much more sophisticated data and information into models, better describing the natural environment. This new generation of models has markedly improved weather forecasts and increased our understanding of atmospheric and ocean climates.

The advent of the Internet provided NOAA the opportunity to make a quantum leap in the way we provide information and data to the public—one of our core missions. Today, over 800 NOAA Web sites stream our vast data holdings nonstop throughout the world. These Web sites also serve to educate and inspire people young and old, offering everyone opportunities to explore with us underwater treasures, coastal habitats, and marine life.

The NOAA of Today: An Integrated Scientific Approach

NOAA image of Pascagoula, Mississippi, taken on Aug. 30, 2005

NOAA image of Pascagoula, Mississippi, taken on August 30, 2005, after Hurricane Katrina rampaged through the region. The day after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, NOAA began aerial photography flights of the affected areas. For nine days the NOAA aircraft flew two to three missions each day, stopping only to re-fuel. Nearly 7,000 aerial images were produced from these missions.

NOAA has emerged from these recent transformations unified, innovative, nimble, and ready to address the needs of the American people. This was very apparent in 2005, in the days and hours before Hurricane Katrina and the hours, days, weeks, and months that followed. NOAA staff members tracked Katrina using satellites, monitored the storm using hurricane hunter aircraft, predicted storm tracks using models, and issued evacuation warnings to coastal residents. Following Katrina’s passage, NOAA staff took aerial photos to document coastal damage; surveyed Gulf Coast waterways to speedily reopen ports; evaluated hundreds of pollution releases, sunken vessels, and other hazardous spill releases; measured contaminant concentrations in water, sediments, fish, and shellfish; assessed damage to fisheries; and removed debris from waterways.

NOAA response to Hurricane Katrina demonstrated the capabilities of all elements of NOAA acting in concert to serve our nation. This unparalleled disaster brought together all of NOAA’s capabilities and assets on an unprecedented scale to save life and property prior to and during the hurricane and to help in response and recovery efforts in the storm’s aftermath.

As our understanding of our oceans and atmosphere has evolved, so too has the way we study, analyze, and even manage our oceans, coasts, and skies. Combining resources, knowledge, and expertise from across the agency will continue to allow us to tackle issues with a broad lens, providing solutions that balance the health of the environment with the economic and social needs of our country.


What’s Inside…

Continuously Operating Reference Stations (CORS) Map

The Continuously Operating Reference Stations (CORS) system is a network that continually collects global positioning system (GPS) signals and provides these data via the Internet for precise positioning activities. Today, the CORS network constitutes the foundation of the National Spatial Reference System.

We asked our offices and staff to reflect on the last thirty or so years and identify a defining change in how they have done business. This change could be tied to new technology, such as the global positioning system, or revised legislation, such as changes to the Coastal Zone Management Act.

Each tale has a different starting point, reflecting our diverse missions and functions. However, each story ends with the present and, by comparing the “way it was” with the “way it is,” each story reveals a NOAA of today that is innovative, evolutionary, and revolutionary.

In Transformations, you will learn how…

  • In just the past two decades, NOAA has advanced from providing static paper nautical charts to digital files called Electronic Navigational Charts that contain all chart information shown on paper charts, but can be used with special software to provide advance warning of navigational hazards. These technological advancements have made navigation in U.S. waters safer and have reduced the probability of ship groundings.

  • The polar-orbiting NOAA 18 (N) satellite on the launch pad.

    The polar-orbiting NOAA 18 (N) satellite on the launch pad.

  • Over the past 40 years, NOAA’s environmental satellite program has grown from one lonely satellite, TIROS-1, with its single television camera pointing at the Earth, to a comprehensive satellite system, including polar-orbiting and geostationary satellites that provide visible and infrared images of our planet and collect measurements of the Earth's atmosphere, cloud cover, ocean temperatures, and land surfaces. These improvements have increased warning times for severe weather events and disasters, allowed emergency workers to better monitor hazards, and benefited everything from agriculture to forestry services.

  • Over the past 20 years, our Coastal Mapping Program has gone from using only film cameras to using film cameras, airborne digital cameras, and space-based high resolution sensors on commercial satellites to collect images of our nation’s shoreline. These advances have allowed us to deliver very high resolution images of the Earth in shorter timeframes, transforming the way we map coastal regions and provide the national shoreline needed to define America's marine territorial limits, manage coastal resources, make nautical charts, and many other uses.

  • NOAA ship launched in 2003

    Oscar Dyson, a NOAA ship launched in 2003, was the first of four new fisheries survey vessels of the same design. It was designed and built to NOAA specifications and is among the most technologically advanced fisheries research ships in the world.

  • In the past decade, NOAA has made great strides in modernizing our fleet of ships, moving from 15 ships in 1997 to the 19 ships of today that average 27 years old and are equipped with the latest technology needed to conduct hydrographic surveys, oceanographic and atmospheric research, and fisheries research. This younger, more capable fleet of ships is helping NOAA understand and predict changes in the Earth's environment and wisely manage coastal and marine resources.

  • Technological advances in the last 30 years have changed how we monitor fishery stocks, allowing fisheries scientists today to use computers to complete in seconds assessment calculations that in the 1970s would have taken a scientist all day to complete using a hand-held calculator. Computers have also allowed us to move from using single-species models to using multi-species models that incorporate more data. The enormous computing power available to study very large, complex fisheries stock datasets has improved our ability to effectively manage our nation’s fisheries.

  • Maintaining Atlas TOGA-TAO buoys

    Personnel off the NOAA ship Ronald H. Brown maintaining Atlas TOGA-TAO buoys on the equatorial El Niño array. These buoys are instrumented to measure ocean temperature at varying depths and give forewarning of El Niño or La Niña events.

  • A little more than two decades ago, NOAA began deploying the Tropic Atmosphere-Ocean (TAO) array. Combined with Japan’s Triangle Trans-Ocean Buoy Network (TRITON), the TAO-TRITON array is one of the most visible and successful ocean observing systems ever developed and has provided ocean and weather data needed to detect, understand, and predict El Niño; build better operational climate forecasts; and enhance our understanding of the ocean carbon cycle.

  • In the past three decades, the National Weather Service has gone from relying on vintage, World War II-era radar technology to operating a modern system that combines a network of NEXRAD Doppler weather radars, more sophisticated data modeling, and enhanced communications technology to monitor weather systems and warn the public of impending severe weather. The technology now in place has saved countless lives by preparing and alerting communities of impending disasters.

So browse through the stories to the right to learn how the recent evolution of our organization has transformed NOAA into its present-day state: an organization poised and ready to meet challenges head on…


Topic List

Below is a list of topics with Transformation stories. Click on a topic to learn the story of recent change of that topic within NOAA.

Atmospheric Research

Climate Data Management

Climate Research

Coastal Ecosytem Research

Coastal Management

Coastal Mapping

Coastal Restoration

Ecological Forecasting

Environmental Satellites

Fisheries Management

Fisheries Science and Technology

Habitat Restoration

Harmful Algal Blooms


Marine Protected Areas

Marine Sanctuaries

National Estuarine Research Reserve System

National Ice Center

National Spatial Reference System

National Status and Trends Program

Nautical Charts

NOAA Aircraft

NOAA Corps

NOAA Ships

Oceanographic Data Management

Ocean Research

Protected Resources

Spill Response

Surveying Elevations

Surveying Using Satellites

Tides and Currents

Tsunami Warnings

Weather, Ocean, and Climate Prediction

Weather, Water, and Climate Forecasts and Warnings