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Composite map of the world assembled from data acquired by the NOAA Suomi NPP satellite in April and October 2012.

Monitoring our changing world from land, sea and sky

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Our changing Earth
Our changing Earth
Obervations from the sky
Observations on the ground
Observations on the sea surface
Observations under the sea

On the front lines for America 24/7, NOAA’s work stretches from the surface of the sun to the depths of the sea, from every region of the U.S. to many corners of the globe. Millions of people, in homes, schools and workplaces, and in the air and at sea, begin and end each day with NOAA information.

Our vast network of radars, satellites, buoys, tide gauges, ships, aircraft, and supercomputers keep tabs on the condition of our planet's health and provides critical information that's used to predict changes in climate, weather, oceans, and coastlines.

Data from NOAA's Earth observing platforms is used by governments, businesses, and citizens to make decisions that support healthy ecosystems, strong economies, and resilient communities along our coasts.
NOAA observations of the Earth
Data from NOAA's Earth observing platforms are used by governments, businesses, and citizens to make decisions that support healthy ecosystems, strong economies, and resilient communities. (NOAA)

It’s hard to imagine any sector of our economy that does not depend on NOAA data:

  • People and businesses count on NOAA for weather forecasts and life-saving alerts.

  • Farmers rely on NOAA’s long-range climate forecasts to decide what to plant and when.

  • Fishermen trust NOAA’s nautical charts and check tide, current and weather information before heading to sea and while on the water.

  • Marine shipping companies, which transport 90 percent of U.S. goods, count on NOAA data to keep ports and waterways safe.

  • Airlines save millions of dollars by using NOAA real-time weather information to keep passengers and planes from being stranded in bad weather.

Jason-3, NOAA's new global ocean satellite
NOAA's Jason-3 satellite, launched in January 2016, will monitor changing ocean conditions, such as sea-level rise. 

Our scientists — marine biologists, oceanographers, meteorologists, geologists and more — work hand-in-hand with academic, state and local government, and industry partners to develop new platforms to observe the Earth and continually discover new and innovative ways to apply this information to the problems and opportunities facing all Americans. Continued public investment in these tools will ensure all sectors of our economy have the best data to make the best decisions in a changing world.

Explore how we observe the Earth from every vantage point.

Watching weather on Earth

Jason-3, a U.S.-European satellite mission, is to become the latest spacecraft to track the rate of global sea level rise. It will also help NOAA more accurately forecast the strength of tropical cyclones that threaten America's coasts.
Jason-3, a U.S.-European satellite mission, will track the rate of global sea level rise and help NOAA more accurately forecast the strength of tropical cyclones. (NOAA)

NOAA’s fleet of satellites are the backbone of weather forecasts, climate research, and environmental assessments that result in public awareness and preparedness. NOAA satellites scan the globe day and night, sending back an endless stream of information about the atmosphere, ocean, land, and space such as temperatures, cloud formations, wind patterns, and sea currents. Accurate forecasts and severe weather alerts on television and radio, on web pages, and smartphone apps all rely on NOAA satellite data.

Watching weather in space

Severe weather isn’t limited to the Earth--it also occurs in space. In fact, solar storms from the sun that reach the Earth can be very disruptive and costly to our power grids, aviation, telecommunications and GPS systems. In 2013, a Lloyds of London study predicted that the most extreme space weather storms could affect 20 to 40 million people in the U.S. and cause up to $2.6 trillion in damages. One of NOAA's newest satellites, DSCOVR, detects these storms as they happen. This allows our forecasters to warn power providers, phone companies, and others to take actions to prevent outages and other damage.

Tracking Arctic change

The Arctic is warming at twice the rate of anywhere else on Earth. This change is having a profound effect on global weather and climate patterns while also opening opportunities for transportation, energy and fishing industries. NOAA researchers use data from satellites and aircraft to monitor melting sea ice and thawing tundra using specialized equipment that can measure ice thickness and volume. We also have teams on the ground and on ships monitoring changes in wildlife and charting the seafloor.

Hunting for hurricanes

NOAA's two WP-3D Orion aircraft are best known for their role as "hurricane hunters."
NOAA "Hurricane Hunter" - NOAA's two WP-3D Orion aircraft are best known for their role as "hurricane hunters." (NOAA)

Satellites aren't the only tools NOAA uses to track hurricanes; NOAA's two specially-equipped WP-3D 'Hurricane Hunter' aircraft fly through the eyewall of a hurricane and transmit data back to forecasters that satellites or radars cannot. Data collected during these high-flying meteorological stations and from a variety of other sources are fed into numerical computer models to help forecasters predict how intense a hurricane will be, and when and where it will make landfall.

Monitoring ocean color

The Visible Infrared Imager Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) instrument on NOAA/NASA Suomi NPP satellite will provide ocean color measurements, which are used to determine areas of harmful algal blooms, ocean phytoplankton, and sediment runoffs.
Ocean color: The Visible Infrared Imager Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) instrument on NOAA/NASA Suomi NPP satellite will provide ocean color measurements. (NOAA)

Look closely at a satellite image of the Earth and you will see that the color of our oceans and lakes isn’t only blue, but can also be tinged with areas of green. NOAA scientists around the globe use ocean color data for a variety of purposes, from monitoring the food supply for marine animals, to analyzing the physical dynamics of our ocean that affect weather and climate, to tracking algal blooms that could be dangerous to people and animals.

Operating powerful weather radars

In 2013, NOAA completed the dual-polarization technology update to 122 radar sites throughout the country. This new advanced technology is helping federal weather forecasters more accurately track, assess and warn the public of approaching high-impact weather.
NOAA DualPol radar: In 2013, NOAA completed the dual-polarization technology, which helps federal weather forecasters more accurately track, assess and warn the public of approaching high-impact weather. (NOAA)

NOAA forecasters use advanced radar technology to accurately track, assess and warn the public of approaching high-impact weather. Radars transmit horizontal and vertical pulses into the sky, which produces an informative picture of the size and shape of objects or hazards like  rain, snow, hail, volcanic ash and wildfire smoke plumes. This technology enables NOAA to issue more accurate and timely watches and warnings that saves lives.

Forecasting river conditions

NOAA's weather team includes river forecasters who utilize river gauges and coastal tidal stations to monitor for high water conditions that could cause flooding. Our 13 river forecast centers and 122 weather forecast offices across the country work together to issue watches and warnings when flood threats are present. In drought situations, these forecasters team up with NOAA fishery managers and community water users to provide data that can support the needs of human users and natural resources.

Forecasting fire weather

NOAA forecasters play a vital role in efforts to combat wildfires that rage in many parts of the United States each year. Once a fire starts, up-to-date weather information from radar systems and weather satellites becomes critical. NOAA forecasters are oftentimes called to the scene to assist incident commanders and firefighters with valuable data on wind speed and direction, which helps them make the best decisions for emergency responders and public safety.

Researching tornadoes & severe storms

NOAA researchers work to understand the origins of tornadoes in thunderstorms. This knowledge helps NOAA's National Weather Service improve warnings for tornadoes and severe thunderstorms.
Tornado research: NOAA research to understand the science behind severe storms helps NOAA's National Weather Service improve warnings for tornadoes and severe thunderstorms. (NOAA)

Each year, the U.S. experiences approximately 1,300 tornadoes. No state is invulnerable to the destructive and sometimes deadly winds that emanate from dark thunderstorms. NOAA makes maximum use of observations, numerical forecast models, Doppler radar, satellite data and the best available science and technology to generate their forecasts. Our researchers also engage in field campaigns to study the entire lifecycle of a tornado, using specially-equipped vehicles, mobile radars, weather balloons and unmanned aerial vehicles to measure the storm from every vantage point.

Measuring elevation changes

Using new international measurement standards and technology not available in the past, NOAA in 2015 calculated the official architectural height of the Washington Monument to be 554 feet 7 11/32 inches—a highly precise measurement that makes it eligible for inclusion in official registers of the world's tallest structures.
Washington Monument: NOAA in 2015 calculated the official architectural height of the Washington Monument to be 554 feet 7 11/32 inches—a highly precise measurement that makes it eligible for inclusion in official registers of the world's tallest structures. (NOAA)

For more than 200 years, surveyors, mapping professionals, engineers and many others have relied on NOAA latitude, longitude and elevation measurements for establishing property boundaries, constructing buildings, roads, bridges and levees, creating accurate maps and charts, and much more. Shortly after a very rare East Coast earthquake in 2011, the National Park Service commissioned a NOAA survey team to measure the official architectural height of the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C. It's highly precise measurement of 554 feet, 7 11/32 inches helped safety engineers reopen the landmark and made it eligible for inclusion in the official registers of the world's tallest structures.

Tracking oil spills

As the lead science agency for oil spills, NOAA scientists use a number of tools above and below the ocean's surface to collect the mission-critical data emergency officials need to respond to the spill. Ocean observing technologies like tide gauges, buoys, water samplers and gliders are used to track the movement of oil and identify what marine communities or coastal residents may be most at risk. Following a spill, NOAA works with partners to assess damage to beaches, marshes and coasts and quantify economic losses.

Detecting tsunamis

Although a tsunami cannot be prevented, the impact of a tsunami can be mitigated through community preparedness, timely warnings, and effective response. NOAA has primary responsibility for providing tsunami warnings to the Nation, and a leadership role in tsunami observations and research.
Tsunami detection: NOAA has primary responsibility for providing tsunami warnings to the Nation, and a leadership role in tsunami observations and research. (NOAA)

Although infrequent, tsunamis pose a major threat to coastal populations. A tsunami is a series of ocean waves created by a sudden displacement of seawater, oftentimes caused by an undersea earthquake. NOAA scientists operate a network of specialized buoys in the Pacific that monitor seismic activity on the seafloor. If a tsunami threat is detected, NOAA tsunami warning center scientists spring into action and issue alerts to coastal communities within minutes should conditions warrant.

Measuring sea level rise

Sea level is rising at an increasing rate, and communities rely on decades of water level data from NOAA coastal tide stations, as well as the continued record of vital sea surface height measurements made by NOAA satellites, to calculate trends and take action. The two major causes of global sea-level rise are thermal expansion caused by the warming of the ocean (since water expands as it warms) and the loss of land-based ice (such as glaciers and polar ice caps) due to increased melting. Higher mean sea levels increase the frequency, magnitude, and duration of flooding associated with a given storm. See sea level trends in your area and view potential impacts.

Locating marine debris

Marine debris injures and kills marine life, interferes with navigation safety, and poses a threat to human health. Our oceans and waterways are polluted with a wide variety of marine debris ranging from soda cans and plastic bags to derelict fishing gear and abandoned vessels.
Marine debris: Our oceans and waterways are polluted with a wide variety of marine debris ranging from soda cans and plastic bags to derelict fishing gear and abandoned vessels. (NOAA)

Every year, unknown numbers of marine animals, including whales, seals, dolphins, turtles, and sea birds, are either injured or die needlessly because they got entangled in or ingested debris and trash that ended up in the ocean. NOAA uses many tools to locate marine debris, from satellites in space to human eyes on the beach, and taps into ocean observing technologies to understand how debris may travel in ocean currents and tides. Marine debris can travel impressive distances, as we saw from the Japanese Tsunami of 2011, with boats, docks, and even a soccer ball, washing ashore on U.S. West Coast beaches.

Tracking increasing acidity

A worsening symptom of climate change is rising acidity levels in many areas of the ocean, which can cause crippling, osteoporosis-like effects on commercially-valuable shellfish like oysters and clams. Using data from NOAA ocean observing systems, some shellfish hatcheries have shifted their operations to schedule production when water quality is good and used alerts from the system to halt operations when cold, acidified sea water levels become detected.

Measuring tides and currents

OAA uses tide gauges, current meters, buoys, high frequency radio detecting and ranging systems, and other technology to monitor tides and currents.
Measuring tides and currents: NOAA uses tide gauges, current meters, buoys, high frequency radio detecting and ranging systems, and other technology to monitor tides and currents. (NOAA)

The ocean never stands still. Anyone who has visited a beach may have witnessed one of the most reliable and predictable features of the ocean: the rise and fall of the tide, caused by the gravitational pull of the moon and the sun on our planet. Understanding tides and currents is essential for safely moving big ships in and out of ports, making decisions about coastal infrastructure, protecting the environment---and knowing when it’s time to move the beach chair. NOAA and its predecessors have gathered oceanographic data along our nation's coasts for more than 200 years. Today, NOAA uses tide gauges, current meters, buoys, high-frequency radio detecting and ranging systems, and other technology to monitor tides and currents.

Searching for shipwrecks

The wreck of the Civil War ironclad USS Monitor is protected by NOAA's Monitor National Marine Sanctuary.
USS Monitor: The wreck of the Civil War ironclad USS Monitor is protected by NOAA's Monitor National Marine Sanctuary. (NOAA)

With the help of sonar technology and remotely operated vehicles, NOAA is able to locate and investigate sunken vessels that offer archaeologists a peek into America's past. The East and Gulf Coasts in particular preserve shipwrecks dating back to the American Revolution, including the U.S.S. Monitor. Locating wrecks is also important for safety reasons, as some ships are in shallow enough waters to pose danger to mariners, or may have unused fuel tanks onboard that are prone to rupture over time.

Monitoring coral bleaching

When corals are stressed by changes in conditions such as temperature, light, or nutrients, they expel the symbiotic algae living in their tissues, causing them to turn completely white.
Coral bleaching: When corals are stressed by changes in conditions such as temperature, light, or nutrients, they expel the symbiotic algae living in their tissues, causing them to turn completely white. (NOAA)

Coral reefs are beautiful, awe-inspiring ecosystems essential to human-well being. They provide an estimated $375 billion in economic and environmental services such as food, protection for coasts, and tourism. However, warmer and more acidic waters cause mass bleaching in corals and inhibit the growth of coral skeletons. Using data from NOAA satellites, ocean observing systems, and reconnaissance from divers, NOAA is able to forecast the potential for coral bleaching worldwide several months into the future. NOAA scientists also work with partners on innovative projects to restore, repair or relocate damaged reefs.

Tracking ocean invaders

An invasive species, such as the lionfish, is an organism that causes ecological or economic harm in a new environment where it is not native.
Invasive lionfish: An invasive species, such as the lionfish, is an organism that causes ecological or economic harm in a new environment where it is not native. (NOAA)

An invasive species is an organism that causes ecological or economic harm in a new environment where it is not native. They are introduced to a new area via the ballast water of oceangoing ships, intentional and accidental releases of aquaculture species, aquarium specimens or bait, and other means. Famous invasive species in the U.S. include lionfish on the East and Gulf coasts, as well as Asian carp in the Great Lakes. NOAA scientists engage in innovative efforts to collect data on these populations and what oceanic conditions inspire their growth, as well as participate in scientific missions or community-sponsored 'derbies' to remove as many invaders from the ecosystem as possible.

Assessing fish stocks

In 2014 alone, U.S. fishermen landed 9.5 billion pounds of fish and shellfish, valued at $5.4 billion. To ensure America’s fisheries and catch limits are sustainable for future generations, NOAA fishery biologists conduct routine stock assessments to evaluate and specify the present and probable future condition of a fishery. Collecting this data is a combination of scientific observations conducted on ships as well as analyzing reports from the recreational fishermen and commercial industries.

Okeanos Explorer

Known as “America’s ship for ocean exploration” the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer is not a research vessel. Dedicated solely to exploration, the ship conducts operations around the globe, mapping the seafloor and characterizing largely unknown areas of the ocean.
NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer: Known as America's ship for ocean exploration, Okeanos Explorer conducts operations around the globe, mapping the seafloor and characterizing largely unknown ocean areas. (NOAA)

NOAA operates a fleet of vessels that conduct important surveys of our nation's oceans, coasts and fisheries. One particular vessel, NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer, is the only federally funded U.S. ship dedicated to ocean exploration. Equipped with powerful broadband satellite communication and telepresence technology, anyone from around the world can join the crew as they investigate shipwrecks, study corals, chart canyons and discover new forms of marine life.

Published on
January 25, 2016