NOAA awards contract to manage huge stores of environmental data

Goal is to make it easier for researchers to search the petabytes of weather information the agency collects.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration signed a contract on Monday to help manage an archive of environmental data, which by 2020 will store more information than all the material printed in the world since Gutenberg.

Comment on this article in The Forum.The $2.8 million contract, awarded to Diversified Global Partners Joint Venture LLC, will help NOAA manage and provide access to torrents of data from weather satellite systems operated the agency's National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service, said Christopher Fox, director of NOAA's Geophysical Data Center in Boulder, Colo. The data makes up an electronic library of environmental information known as the Comprehensive Large Array-data Stewardship System. Later, NOAA plans to add data from terrestrial systems such as that collected by the NEXRAD radar systems operated by National Weather Service.

NOAA downloads 16 billion bytes of satellite data daily to a satellite operation facility in Suitland, Md., and CLASS stores 1 petabyte, or 1 quadrillion bytes of information. Fox estimated CLASS would manage an archive of 160 petabytes of data by 2020.

The CLASS archive stores environmental data collected since 1974, and researchers will be able to access the information over the Web to study weather patterns, global warming and coastal erosion, all key information to predicting impacts of hurricanes.

"The future of earth sciences will focus less on how we collect data and more on what we do with it to provide products that improve lives," said NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher. "CLASS will allow us to use the data we have in new and exciting ways."

Rick Vizbulis, the project manager for CLASS, said the system will store data on a combination of high-capacity hard drives and tape drives at redundant data centers in Boulder and Asheville, N.C., and will be able to accommodate innovations in storage technology.

CLASS has been in operation since 2001, and NOAA has been trying to find ways to make it easier for researchers to sift through the mounting stores of data, according to Vizbulis. Fox said NOAA was working to make the data sets more transparent and to build search tools so researchers could find information more easily, which was part of the contract. "This is a work in progress, but we have made a lot of headway," Fox said.

He likened the challenge NOAA is looking at in providing users easy access to petabytes of data to the one Google faced in its early development of a Web search engine, "and no one could have foreseen what Google could do a few years ago," he said.

NOAA has requested a budget of $7.5 million for CLASS for fiscal 2009, up from $6.5 million in fiscal 2008. Agency briefing documents indicate NOAA plans to spend $7.4 million a year on CLASS during the next 10 years.

CLASS archives information from a family of NOAA weather satellites: two geostationary operational environmental satellites, which send weather data and pictures that cover various sections of the United States; the polar-orbiting operational environmental satellites, which provide global coverage of cloud cover, storm location, temperature and heat balance in the Earth's atmosphere.

CLASS also archives data from the Defense Meteorological Satellites Program, which is operated by the Defense Department. In the future, NOAA said CLASS will archive data from NEXRAD radar and wind and wave data collected by a global network of data buoys.

Diversified Global Partners did not return calls for comment. The company is a partnership of DBN Consulting Group in Silver Spring, Md., and Global Science and Technology in Greenbelt, Md.