NOAA Programs are Rooted Across Wisconsin

From underneath the waves to the heights of outer space, six organizations in Wisconsin receive funding and support from the same federal program and touch many environments in the state. They do so in a way that complements and strengthens the other programs, not duplicating efforts or competing.

The parent program in question is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Housed in the U.S. Department of Commerce, NOAA’s tagline is “Science, Service, Stewardship.” Its goal is to help Americans understand and protect the air and the water we depend upon, and in doing so, ensure economic vitality.

Read on to discover more about Wisconsin’s six NOAA programs — how they work together, and how Wisconsin Sea Grant fits into each.

The National Weather Service

The NOAA National Weather Service (NWS) is familiar to anyone who pays attention to weather forecasts. In Wisconsin, weather forecasts and warnings are handled by five offices that cover different areas of the state. They are located in Green Bay, Milwaukee, La Crosse, Duluth, Minn., and Minneapolis.

“We’re concerned about making sure people are safe from hazardous weather,” said Tim Halbach, warning coordination meteorologist with the NWS in Milwaukee. “We’re in the business of saving lives and property. We forecast, but we also try to tell people how they might be impacted by weather events.”

To that end, Halbach is working with Wisconsin Sea Grant on projects designed to understand how people react to weather warnings and to develop more effective wording for the warnings. “We’re trying to integrate social science more into what we do,” Halbach said.

His NWS colleagues worked with Jane Harrison, Sea Grant’s former social scientist, and other social scientists in the Great Lakes Sea Grant Network to test different tornado warning wording, which may change the way the NWS broadcasts its warnings nationwide.

Currently, Halbach is working with Harrison’s successor, Deidre Peroff, to explore the influence of severe weather on economically disadvantaged people. They are analyzing which communications tools and technology are most effective in reaching poorer people, who seem to bear more significant losses in life and property during severe weather.

“The weather service has a lot of ways to communicate to the high-end technical users who have computers, iPads and smart phones in front of them but we don’t spend a lot of time assuring that everyone is getting the information they need,” Halbach said.

Wisconsin Coastal Management Program

Located within the state Department of Administration, the Wisconsin Coastal Management Program (WCMP) provides technical assistance and receives funding from NOAA — dispersing it through a competitive process to other organizations in the state that want to work on issues affecting Wisconsin’s Great Lakes coastline. It focuses on the 15 counties along lakes Michigan and Superior.

“There’s a little bit of the coastal management program everywhere from Superior down to Kenosha,” said Program Manager Mike Friis. “We work with local governments, nonprofits and academics to do projects and hazard mitigation work, coastal community planning, habitat protection, public access and historic preservation work. We address coastal nonpoint pollution control and Great Lakes education.”

With Sea Grant, the WCMP has worked on many programs including coastal storms beach safety, freshwater steel corrosion in the Duluth-Superior Harbor, and the Sea Caves Watch project in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore (along with UW-Madison and the National Park Service). The program also funds a joint Science Policy Fellowposition with Sea Grant and houses the fellow in their office.

Friis likens the close working relationship the WCMP has with other NOAA partners in the state to a tree “whose roots have grown together. You can’t really separate us.”

And like a tree that can grow saplings from its roots, the WCMP has led efforts to create new NOAA programs in the state. These include the Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve (the Reserve) in Superior and the proposed Wisconsin-Lake Michigan National Marine Sanctuary. “The WCMP was the lead agency, but Sea Grant was a key partner working on the Reserve designation process – figuring out where it would be located – and we worked on the nomination to NOAA by the state,” Friis said. “The Reserve is now managed by the University of Wisconsin Extension, so that created another NOAA partner in the state for us.”

Friis said that the idea for the marine sanctuary started over 15 years ago with the development of a Wisconsin Harbor Towns Association, a collection of Great Lakes communities that came together to market themselves as travel destinations. “That group also provided us with the capabilities to conduct public outreach on the idea of a marine sanctuary,” Friis said. The WCMP worked with the Wisconsin Historical Society to conduct a survey of shipwrecks within all of Wisconsin’s Great Lakes waters to identify where the known and likely maritime archeological resources are the greatest. Once NOAA developed a process for community-driven nomination of the sanctuaries, the WCMP worked closely to bring together a coalition of partners to work on the nomination, he said.

The nomination was submitted in December of 2014, was accepted by NOAA and is in the planning and rule-developing stage, with public meetings scheduled for the second week of March 2017.

Proposed Wisconsin-Lake Michigan National Marine Sanctuary

Russ Green has been working for the past six months at the University of Wisconsin-Sheboygan as the regional coordinator for the proposed Wisconsin-Lake Michigan National Marine Sanctuary. Before that, he worked as the research coordinator and deputy superintendent for the only other Great Lakes marine sanctuary in Alpena, Mich.

Marine sanctuaries are designed to protect natural and cultural marine resources because healthy water environments are the basis for thriving recreation, tourism and commercial activities in coastal communities. Green explained there are 13 sanctuaries spread out on the U.S. ocean coasts, Hawaii and American Samoa, along with two National Marine Monuments.

Although the sanctuary is not designated yet, the planning process has Green working closely with Manitowoc, Sheboygan and Ozaukee counties, which are within the proposed boundaries. Kewaunee County is also included in an alternative assessment.

“The region has all the pieces you’d want in a marine sanctuary,” Green said. “It has a great breadth of history with nearly 40 shipwrecks and the communities really rallied together to leverage the idea to support heritage tourism and local economies. It’s very much a partnership.”

Green is also working with Sea Grant on some lake-bottom mapping projects, which he hopes will be useful for commercial fishermen and natural resource managers. Also, with the WCMP and Sea Grant, Green has submitted a grant to a NOAA program called Preserve America to produce a GIS-driven website that would feature an interactive story map of the sanctuary. “The site would provide a one-stop-shop for people who want to learn what they can do at the sanctuary, such as kayaking and diving, as well as many shore-side attractions. We want something that all the communities can use to market heritage tourism. The proposal is very representative of the future work we want to do with our NOAA, state and community partners,” Green said.

Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve

With an office in Superior, Wis., the Reserve was designated in 2010, joining a national system of 28 reserves with the mission of long-term research, education and stewardship of vital coastal estuaries. Estuaries are found where rivers meet and mix with a larger body of water. In Superior, that’s the St. Louis River and Lake Superior, and other areas along the north and south shores of the lake.

“Reserves are set up as places of innovation, science and management,” said Erika Washburn, director of the Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve. “We try to improve research techniques and protocols, and design education programs that lead to behavior change – all things that the rest of the coastal science and management community can replicate across the country, especially in other place-based programs.”

The Reserve is so enmeshed with its NOAA partners, it shares office space and programming with Wisconsin Sea Grant staff members. And the Reserve partners with those staff members – a coastal engineer and a science communicator – to help with the Reserve’s coastal training programs, answer questions about the use of dredged material, and to provide support for community events such as The River Talks speaker series and the St. Louis River Summit. The Reserve has also recently cooperated with Sea Grant staff in Madison to hold an ecosystem services workshop.

Washburn said that each year the Reserve works with a wide range of community partners to help them write research proposals for Sea Grant funding. “We must be involved with six or seven conversations with partners right now,” she said.

Washburn stressed the importance of working together. “Especially now, in a more resource-constrained environment, it’s critical that those of us in NOAA programs leverage our resources and collaborate. Otherwise, we’re going to struggle to get the work done.”

Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies

Another NOAA program that’s a little less public than the others, but no less important, is the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies (CIMSS) at UW-Madison. With seven NOAA employees working alongside UW scientists, the institute cooperates closely with the National Weather Service and NOAA to design the next generation of weather satellites for installation into outer space, as well as developing new ways to analyze the data coming from the satellites.

Steven Ackerman, acting director for CIMSS, offered this example of their role: “When the weather service forecasts severe weather, generally they’ll map out big boxes denoting the area at risk, which may cover a couple of states. We use satellite data to try and pinpoint when that storm forms and is beginning to go severe. We work to narrow it down.”

Ackerman said CIMSS has also collaborated with Sea Grant over the years on weather-related projects and is currently collaborating on a project involving high spatial resolution imagery to look at the ground and how it changes. “A lot of the work we do is looking at the atmosphere and the weather. Since Sea Grant has more of a water-related focus, our jobs are different but I think we certainly support each other in terms of our missions.”

Wisconsin Sea Grant

Sea Grant Director James Hurley cites the proposed marine sanctuary as a good example of how NOAA programs cooperate and respond to stakeholder needs, and even how Sea Grant works. “The whole sanctuary process was a bottom-up approach, with organizational help from the coastal program,” Hurley said. “The communities along the coast wanted the sanctuary. Then it was enabled by the collaborative work of the NOAA partners. In a sense, that’s the same way we try to drive our Sea Grant research program. We focus on funding water research that meets and is responsive to the needs of local coastal stakeholders.”

He agrees with the tree root analogy for NOAA programs in Wisconsin. “The key part of all this is the cooperation among all our groups. Although everyone has their own niche, by pulling together we can better address state and local concerns and define our roles in responding to them.”