NOAA moving forecasting center to College Park

August 4, 2012

The weather in Camp Springs isn’t so different from that in College Park, but a move from one end of Prince George’s County to the other spells brighter skies for the nation’s top weather-watching agency.

After several decades in an aging, antiquated building, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is in the process of moving its Center for Weather and Climate Prediction to a new $100 million facility in College Park.

The move, which will culminate in a ribbon-cutting this fall, marks the completion of a project that began in 1999 and was talked about for years before that.

With its array of sophisticated technology, the Center for Weather and Climate Prediction shows how the tools of weather forecasting have advanced in recent decades. In the basement of the new five-story building sit rows upon rows of computer servers channeling data from the agency’s off-site supercomputers to the labs and offices above.

“In some sense, I’m still pinching myself,” said Louis Uccellini of NOAA. Uccellini heads the National Centers for Environmental Prediction, which provides much of the staff for the Center for Weather and Climate Prediction. For years, Uccellini has been working to make the new facility a reality. “Nobody expected it to take this long,” he said.

But construction of a new facility dragged on, slowed by the 2008 bankruptcy of the original contractor.

It could not be built soon enough.

The Camp Springs building was not designed to accommodate the complex electronic infrastructure that NOAA depends on to analyze the vast amount of data it collects.

“The building they’re leaving in Camp Springs is really kind of stuck in a time warp,” said Maureen O’Leary, a National Weather Service spokeswoman.

Uccellini noted all the holes that had to be drilled in the cement floor to accommodate wiring for the agency’s electronics.

“After a certain point in time, you can’t drill here anymore. Otherwise, you’re running wires on the floor, exposed, and that’s a problem,” he said.

The location, not far from Andrews Air Force Base, also was not a selling point. The landscape is bare and, among employees, the area has a reputation as unsafe.

“In Camp Springs, there were incidents of crime,” said Luis Cano, a member of NOAA’s IT staff. “You wouldn’t go for a walk alone out there. If you do that in Camp Springs, you take your life into your hands.”

Such concerns made it harder to recruit people to the agency.

“It’s hard to attract world-class researchers to what, frankly, looks like a used-car lot,” said Jeff Stehr, a University of Maryland scientist and administrator who has been working to build a relationship between the university and its new neighbor.

The center’s new location, in the city’s M Square research campus, will place the forecasting agency in a high-tech enclave. NOAA’s biggest office complex is eight miles away in Silver Spring, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center is six miles away and U-Md. is two miles away.

Stehr helps run the university’s undergraduate department of atmospheric and oceanic science, which was created a year ago in anticipation of NOAA’s move. At both the undergraduate and the graduate levels, students will have the opportunity to work with NOAA staff.

“What it means practically for us is that we’re going to have 700 or so research scientists over there who are top of the nation,” Stehr said. “We can collaborate with them, and they’ll be right there.”

The benefits will flow both ways, Uccellini said. “Being next to the university, being down the road from Goddard Space Center, those are the kinds of partners we’re looking for.”

Besides its location and high-tech tools, the building, designed by the architecture firm HOK, has a spacious auditorium and environmentally friendly features, such as a local-flora roof garden.

“We can see actual weather from our desks,” satellite analyst Greg Gallina said. “It’s eye candy for us.”

The move is a long time coming, especially for Uccellini, who thought he might retire in 2009, back when it seemed that the facility would be open in 2008. But now that it is finally opening, the 63-year-old official isn’t ready to predict when he will retire.

“I’ll only tell that to my wife,” he said. “Or I should say, she’s going to tell me.”

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