Weather watcher

Jamie Hawkins recalls that when he was a child he would sit under his sister's clear plastic bubble umbrella watching the thunderstorms roll in. Even after 21 years at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Hawkins still is obsessed with watching the weather.

"I was an absolute weather nut," said Hawkins, the new director of the services division in the National Weather Service's Office of Meteorology.

In sixth grade, while friends read comic books, Hawkins checked out the Golden Book of Weather. By ninth grade, Hawkins gave the daily weather forecast in his homeroom class. "The bug hit early and hard," Hawkins said. "I got every book out of the library that I could."

Still, Hawkins never imagined that NWS would be able to predict the weather with the accuracy that it does. Three-day forecasts today are as precise as one-day forecasts when Hawkins was a kid—progress he calls "staggering." Advances in forecasting, which were made possible mainly because of a 10-year, $4 billion modernization program, enable NWS to warn people well in advance of severe weather such as tornadoes.

Hawkins started at NOAA as a satellite meteorologist and most recently worked in NOAA's National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service developing future requirements for satellite systems.

As the NWS modernization project unfolded in the late 1980s, Hawkins led a team tasked with formulating the satellite data requirements for the Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System (AWIPS), which integrates radar, satellite and sensor data on one workstation. Hawkins and his team found a way to transmit data images from the weather satellite to the field forecast offices within seconds—instead of the previous 15 to 30 minutes—using a special multiprocessor.

"It was innovative; we'd been a mainframe shop for so long," Hawkins said of his work on AWIPS. "Thomas Edison said if there's a better way to do something, do it. So what we did is we went after it."

The project, for which Hawkins won an award in 1993, came in under budget and on time and performed better than the requirements. The system he worked on for AWIPS was used until this year, when it was eclipsed by new high-speed, commercial off-the-shelf workstations.

Now that the modernization effort is completed, Hawkins' real challenge at the Office of Meteorology is to stay current and take advantage of the technology infrastructure that is available, he said. "Are there things that we should do to better serve the public with information, to make our data more accessible, to improve the way we get data to the public?" he asked. "You don't want to have a 1990s weather infrastructure and be making 1960s products."

The services division in the Office of Meteorology acts as the focal point for all the services NWS provides in the field, including the aviation, marine and fire weather programs as well as dissemination programs such as the NOAA weather radio, which alerts people to severe weather. The office oversees all the critical warning and forecast programs of NWS regional offices and promotes the short-term critical warning and forecast information needed to warn people and save lives.

Although weather has occupied most of his childhood and adult life, Hawkins enjoys other hobbies, such as reading about cosmology, refereeing his 9-year-old daughter's soccer games and announcing his son's swim meets in the summer. "As the old saying [goes], no one ever faced his death saying I wish I had spent more time in the office," he said.

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