National Weather Center ready to open in Norman

Saturday, June 10th 2006, 5:28 pm
By: News On 6

NORMAN, Okla. (AP) _ A nearly 40-year separation of University of Oklahoma meteorology students and federal weather forecasters will come to an end this summer with the opening of the National Weather Center.

Students and government scientists worked side-by-side in the early 1960s until a fire swept through a university research lab in April 1967, turning the wooden structure into a pile of rubble.

The university's School of Meteorology relocated to OU's main campus, separating the academics from the federal weather researchers located on the north base, an old World War II-era Navy base on the city's north side.

That physical separation will end this summer when nearly one dozen weather-related entities, including several divisions of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, begin moving into The National Weather Center.

The massive six-story facility located south of Norman's main campus is nearing completion, and school officials are to begin moving into the new facility within the next several weeks, said John Snow, dean of OU's College of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences.

``When you're moving into a new house, you're always anxious,'' Snow said. ``We're getting the last of the furniture installed and the contractor is doing the last of the finish work on the building.''

The building itself is an impressive facility _ a 244,000-square-foot, $67.3 million structure that serves as the anchor tenant of OU's rapidly expanding research campus on the northeast corner of State Highway 9 and Jenkins Avenue.

Visitors to the center are greeted first with a cavernous atrium accentuated with natural light pouring through a glass ceiling on the fifth floor. Three glass elevators run up the middle of the atrium, which also features a monumental stairway. Soft maple paneling complements the steel and glass fixtures throughout the building.

``It's very visually open, even though it's as big as it is,'' said Michael Moorman, director of OU's Architecture and Engineering office. ``When you go to and from your work area, you'll be fully aware of what other people are doing. That's to get people talking with each other, sharing ideas and working hand in hand.''

Offices and classrooms feature state-of-the-art technology, including a 250-seat auditorium-style classroom on the first floor with power outlets at every seat and a built-in projector housed in the ceiling. Weather-related literary collections all will be housed in a library on the fourth floor.

A sixth-floor rooftop observatory will house an antenna farm for monitoring the weather and includes anchors for weather instruments. A separate enclosed observation tower above the sixth floor offers a view for miles to the south and east of the city, and a mast extending above the building will support microwave antennas that bring data and information into the building.

But scientists and researchers who will work inside the new building are most excited about the synergy expected to develop from having all the different weather disciplines in the same facility.

``We collaborate with lots of the university professors and it's going to improve those collaborations,'' said Doug Forsyth, NOAA's program manager for the National Weather Center and chief of radar research for the National Severe Storms Laboratory. ``We think the building is going to lend itself to improved communications, synergy and improving warnings and watches for the nations.''

Some of the five different entities that make up NOAA's operations in Norman are scattered across the city and its sprawling north base. The prominent weather radar towers that dot the north base will remain, along with a segment of NOAA's Radar Operations Center, but the rest of the federal researchers and employees will be moving to the new building, Forsyth said.

Perhaps the greatest beneficiaries of combining OU's weather-related academic units with the federal entities will be the students, Snow said.

``Imagine taking OU's journalism school and setting it on top of the New York Times building,'' Snow said. ``That's the type of environment we're going to have.

``It's going to give them a tremendous educational opportunity.''

Chris Godfrey, a meteorology student from Gardiner, Maine, who is studying the interaction between the land surface and the lower atmosphere as part of his doctorate work, said he's particularly excited about having the opportunity to meet regularly with some of the top weather forecasters in the world.

``I'm looking forward to the ease with which we can all collaborate in the new building,'' Godfrey said. ``The common areas will allow these collaborations and partnerships to really flourish, I think.''

Ultimately, Snow said he expects those partnerships and collaborations to be the highlight of the new facility.

``Despite all our technological wizardry, the best science is still done over a cup of coffee.''