Naval Oceanography History since 1840 to Present
Commander, Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command (CNMOC) traces its ancestry to the Depot of Charts and Instruments, a 19th Century repository for nautical charts and navigational equipment. In the 1840s, its superintendent, Lt Matthew Fontaine Maury, created and published a revolutionary series of wind and current charts. This information, still resident in modern computer models of ocean basins and the atmosphere, laid the foundation for the sciences of oceanography and meteorology.
Atmospheric science was further developed with the birth of naval aviation in the early 20th Century. During World War I and the following decades, naval aerological specialists applied the fledgling concepts of air masses and fronts to warfare, and provided forecasts to the first transatlantic flight. The Navy's weather and ocean programs contributed greatly to the Allied victory in World War II. In the Pacific, Navy forecasters cracked the Japanese weather code. Hyrdographic survey ships, often under enemy fire, collected data along foreign coastlines for the creation of critical navigation charts.
In the 1970s, the Navy's meteorology and oceanography programs were integrated in a single organization reflecting nature's close interaction of sea and air. Today, this structure still makes up CNMOC.
Here is a year by year breakdown of Naval Oceanography's history from 1830 to 2002:
1830 (6 Dec) Naval Depot of Charts and Instruments established in Washington, at what is now G Street between 17th and 18th Street, in rented facilities. Its mission was to care for and store the Navy’s chronometers, charts, logs, and other navigational instruments. LT Louis M. Goldsborough, USN, in charge.
1834 Depot relocated to a site on Capitol Hill about 1000 feet north of the Capitol dome in a building paid for by the officer then in charge, LT Charles Wilkes, USN.
1837 (Spring) A survey of Georges Bank was the first Naval survey by the Depot. LT Wilkes in charge; the ships Porpoise, Maria, and Badassah conducted the survey. The information collected was used to produce the first set of charts published under Depot authority.
1842 (Fall) Depot relocated to larger quarters in the Foggy Bottom area, to an area between 23rd and 25th Streets, from E Street to Potomac Park. The relocation took place under the charge of LT Matthew Fontaine Maury, USN, who was subsequently named Superintendent of the Navy Depot and Observatory. The Navy Depot and Observatory was placed under the new Bureau of Ordnance and Hydrography, and designated the hydrographic function of the bureau. Whereas until now the Depot was solely a warehouse for instruments, LT Maury interpreted this hydrographic function as justification to add scientific study to the Depot’s mission.
1854 SECNAV formally designated the Depot as the United States Naval Observatory and Hydrographical Office, after many years evolution of a variety of names.
1866 (1 Aug) Official separation into the Naval Observatory and the U.S. Navy Hydrographic Office. The Hydrographic Office moved to 18th Street and New York Avenue, with a mission to include “the carrying out of surveys, the collection of information, and the printing of every kind of nautical chart or publication.”
1871 (21 Jan) The officer in charge of the Hydrographic Office, CAPT Robert Wyman, USN, was designated the Hydrographer to the Bureau of Navigation. One of the five departments under the Hydrographer was the Meteorological Department.
1878 The Hydrographic Office relocated to the State, War, and Navy Department Building in Washington, DC.
1883 The Hydrographic Office established its first branch offices in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. Later followed by branch offices in San Francisco and New Orleans.
1893 The Naval Observatory moved to its present location above Georgetown.
1910 The Hydrographic Office began a daily telegraphic “Daily Memorandum” to ships at sea with weather updates and ice information.
1914 The Hydrographic Office relocated to the Walker-Johnson Building, 1743 New York Avenue, Washington DC.
(15 Nov) To measure and record speed and direction of winds, gusts, and squalls at the ends of the speed course at Pensacola, FL, Director of Naval Aeronautics Captain Mark L. Bristol established requirements for special meteorological equipment to be installed there.
1917 (22 Dec) The addition of an Aerography School in the aviation training program at MIT (started in June 1913 with a course in aeronautical engineering and followed by ground instruction in July 1917) was marked by the start of classes with one student enrolled. A major portion of the school’s new instruction program was carried out at the Blue Hill Observatory, Harvard University, but some classes were also held at the Aerographic Laboratory on the MIT campus. Of 55 men enrolled in the school, 54 qualified as aerologists by the end of the war.
1918 (1 Feb) The Naval Aerological Organization was formed to support WWI Naval aviation needs. Dr. Alexander McAdie, Director of the Blue Hill Observatory of Harvard University, was enrolled as a LCDR in the Naval Reserve based on the 25 January request of the Supervisor, Naval Reserve Flying Corps, and assigned to the Aviation Office in the Chief of Naval Operations to head the Organization.
(26 Feb) In recognition of the importance to flight operations of data on weather phenomena in the upper atmosphere, and acting largely on the recommendations of LCDR McAdie, the CNO established an allowance list of aerographic equipment for air stations abroad.
(16 Apr) First detachment of trained aerologists - nine officers and 15 enlisted - depart for duty at naval air stations in Europe. By war’s end there were 50 officers and 200 enlisted manning 26 stations in Europe and five in the United States.
(17 Apr) LT William F. Reed, Jr. reported at NAS Pensacola for what was then called “aerographical” duty, the first such assignment ever made to a naval air station.
(19 Jun) NAS Pensacola began taking upper atmospheric weather soundings to provide information on wind speed and direction, needed for navigational training flights. Recording instruments were carried aloft by a kite balloon, a technique developed by LT Reed.
(23 Nov) CNO authorized the use of the title “Aerographic Officer” in naval air station organization to identify qualified officers.
1919 The Hydrographic Office moved to the Navy Annex, Navy Building, on B Street between 17th and 19th Streets.
(9 Feb) The submission of aerological data, obtained at various naval air stations, to the US Weather Bureau for use in coordinated study of weather conditions, commenced with the report submitted by NAS Pensacola.
(25 Jun) NAS Anacostia reported experiments in which aircraft carried aloft instruments to measure temperature and humidity of the upper atmosphere.
(Oct) The Naval Aerological Service is established on a permanent basis. Officers are now known as “Aerologists.”
(1 Nov) The Aerological School at NAS Pensacola opened with a class of one Marine Corps officer and four Navy officers.
1920 The first “Notice to Aviators” was issued as the Hydrographic Office became involved in air navigation issues, given the increasingly important role of aircraft in research and scientific investigation.
(2 Apr) NAS Hampton Roads reported that successful night weather soundings had been made since January, using candlelighted free balloons to measure the speed and direction of the wind.
1924 (1 Jul) Aerographer (AG) rating established.
1925 (11 Mar) NAS Anacostia announced arrangements for daily aerological sounding flights to 10,000 feet to obtain weather data and test upper air sounding equipment. These flights commenced in mid-April, and the following February the schedule was extended to include Saturday, Sunday, and holiday flights, with the altitude being increased to 15,000 feet.
(3 Oct) In view of the need for an accumulation of upper air data for improved weather forecasting, the Bureau of Aeronautics requested that aircraft squadron flagships take upper air soundings twice a day when at sea.
1933 (29 Apr) The Bureau of Aeronautics recommended resumption of postgraduate instruction in aerology which had been suspended in 1929. By the end of the year, arrangements were completed for a two-year course at the Postgraduate School and a third year at a civilian university.
1934 An Ocean Research Division is established at the Hydrographic Office “to explore the field of oceanography and to undertake such detailed investigations as will benefit the mariner, both on shipboard and in aircraft over the sea routes.”
1936 (20 Jan) The Bureau of Engineering, in response to a request from the Bureau of Aeronautics, initiated naval support to the Bureau of Standards for the development of radio meteorographs (later named radiosondes). These instruments were to be attached to small free balloons and sent aloft to measure pressure, temperature, and humidity of the upper atmosphere, and to transmit this information to ground stations for use in weather forecasting and flight planning.
(1 Jun) The routine use of radio meteorographs was initiated at NAS Anacostia. By the end of the year, USS Calilfornia (BB 44) and USS Lexington were also outfitted to use radio meteorographs.
1940 The first Weather Central is established in Washington, DC.
1942 (8 Aug) The Aerographer rating is re-designated Aerographers Mate.
1943 The Hydrographic Office relocated to a new building in Suitland, MD.
1945 WWII expansion of the Naval Aerological Service peaked at 1588 aerological units with 1318 officers and approximately 5000 enlisted. Weather Centrals were established at strategic locations to serve operating forces in specified geographic areas.
(Aug) The Bureau of Aeronautics Aerology Section was moved to the office of the CNO, becoming OP-531E under the DCNO (Air). It is later moved up in the organization and was designated the Naval Aerology Branch OP-533.
1946 (29 Jan) A Division of Oceanography was established at the Hydrographic Office by the Office of Research and Inventions (later the Office of Naval Research). LT Mary Sears, USNR(W), was the division head and Dr. R.H. Fleming was the civilian director.
1950 (2 Oct) The Bureau of Aeronautics authorized the establishment of Project AROWA (Applied Research: Operational Weather Analysis) at Norfolk for the purpose of developing basic meteorological research data into practical weather forecasting techniques.
1951 The Navy Ice Observation Program was established when DoD civilians set up an Ice Central in the Hydrographic Office.
(6 Nov) A Neptune patrol bomber of VP-6 failed to return from a weather reconnaissance mission over international waters off Siberia after Soviet planes fired upon it.
1952 (15 Nov) VJ-2 Hurricane Hunters established for weather reconnaissance and hurricane location and tracking.
1954 Navy, Air Force, and the Weather Bureau formed the Joint Numerical Weather Prediction Group in Suitland, MD, to look into the feasibility of computerized predictions. The first Navy ice observation flight took place out of Argentia, Newfoundland.
1955 (11 Oct) The Navy announced achievement of the initial step toward an eventual goal of monitoring surface weather in uninhabited portions of the world and thereby providing improved weather forecasting for use in both flight and surface operations. Automatic meteorological stations, developed by ONR and the Bureau of Aeronautics, were set adrift in the hurricane lanes north of Puerto Rico and provided continuous weather data on tropical storm Janet. Subsequent progress included a moored automatic weather station, one o f which in September 1960 provided the first alert on tropical storm Ethel; unit stations on Antarctica, initially in 1956 but more successfully in 1960; and nuclear energy power as a source for data collection and transmission beginning in 1964.
1957 (21 Feb) The Naval Aerology Branch OP-533 was again moved up in the organization and called the Naval Weather Service Division OP-58, in recognition of the increasing importance of weather information to naval operations.
(30 Jun) A program to gather daily weather data over the Pacific, North America, and the Atlantic by the use of transosonde balloons was inaugurated by NAS Iwakuni. Set to float at 30,000 feet, the balloons carried instruments which reported pressure and temperature every two hours. The duration of each flight was planned for from five to eight hours with the termination point somewhere in the Atlantic, short of the European coast.
(21 Nov) Project AROWA (see entry for 1950 2 Oct) was terminated and its personnel and records transferred to the Navy Weather Research Facility, Norfolk, which had been established in October.
1958 (23-31 Jul) The feasibility of creating or destroying cloud formations by release of carbon black into the atmosphere was established in tests conducted off the Florida coast by VW-4, commanded by CDR Nicholas Brango, under the overall direction of Dr. Florence W. van Straten of the Naval Weather Service Division (OP-58).
(25 Aug) Fleet Weather Facility Alameda is expanded to provide a new service called Optimum Track Ship Routing.
(10 Oct) SECNAV directs that “aerology” and “aerological officer” be replaced by “meteorology” and “meteorological officer.”
(Oct) The Navy Numerical Weather Problems (NANWEP) group was formed in Washington, DC to focus on marine weather prediction in support of naval operations.
1959 (27 May) As a reflection of the ever-broadening scope of a unit which owed its beginning to the needs of Naval Aviation, the Naval Weather Service Division OP-58 is transferred from DCNO (Air) to DCNO (Fleet Operations and Readiness) and re-designated as OP-38. Between 1957 and 1959, locations had changed from the main Navy building on Constitution Ave; to an old warehouse in Arlington, VA; to the Pentagon; to the Naval Station on the east side of the Anacostia River; finally to the Washington Navy Yard (Building 200). The NANWEP (Navy Numerical Weather Problems) group moves to the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, CA.
1960 (15 Jan) The Naval Weather Service Division is transferred from DCNO (Fleet Operations and Readiness) to the VCNO staff and re-designated OP-09B7, and SECNAV establishes an Office of the U.S. Naval Weather Service as a field activity under the management control of the CNO. The new Office managed the integrated Fleet Weather Central system and provided technical direction of meteorological matters within the shore establishment and operating forces.
1961 (Feb) NANWEP is renamed the Fleet Numerical Weather Facility.
1962 The Hydrographic Office is re-designated the Naval Oceanographic Office.
(8 Feb) A detachment of VP-11 at NAS Argentina began ice reconnaissance flights over the Gulf of St Lawrence to aid in evaluating satellite readings of ice formations transmitted by TIROS 4 which had been put into orbit the same day.
(Mar) Project Birdseye was initiated for the Naval Oceanographic Office to gather ice-flow information.
1963 (23-24 Aug) In a joint Weather Bureau-Navy project titled “Stormfury”, a Navy A-3B Skywarrior piloted by CDR John F. Barlow of VAH-11 seeded Hurricane Beulah with silver iodide particles in an experiment to determine whether the energy patterns of large storms could be changed. Although the second day seedings seemed to have some effect, results were considered too indefinite to draw firm conclusions.
(21 Dec) USS Saratoga began receiving weather data from the TIROS 8 weather satellite while moored at Mayport, FL. This was the start of an operational investigation of shipborne readout equipment in which Saratoga continued to receive test readings from TIROS, in port and at sea, through May 1964 and from the experimental weather satellite NIMBUS in September 1964.
1965 (1 Jul) The Navy’s first Oceanographic Air Survey Unit (OASU) was established at Patuxent River. Tasks assigned included aerial ice reconnaissance in the North Atlantic and polar area, and aerial operations concerned with worldwide magnetic collection and observation, known as Project Magnet.
1967 (1 Jul) The Office of the Naval Weather Service became the Naval Weather Service Command with an O6 commander reporting to the CNO, and its mission modified to ensure fulfillment of Navy meteorological requirements and the Department of Defense requirements for oceanographic analyses. The Naval Weather Service Division OP-09B7 was disestablished and incorporated into the Naval Weather Service Command. The Oceanographer of the Navy was established.
1968 (May) Fleet Numerical Weather Facility became the Fleet Numerical Weather Central, and later began producing 10-30 day long range forecast guidance.
1971 (Aug) Fleet Numerical Weather Central assumed Optimum Track Ship Routing responsibilities from Fleet Weather Facility Alameda.
1972 Cartographic functions were transferred from the Naval Oceanographic Office to the Defense Mapping Agency Hydrographic Center.
1974 The Naval Observatory was renamed the U.S. Naval Observatory.
1975 (30 Apr) VW-4 Hurricane Hunters was disestablished, having been established on 15 Nov 1952 as VJ-2 and redesignated VW-4 in 1953. This was the Navy’s last squadron specifically detailed for hurricane reconnaissance. Began relocation of elements of the Naval Oceanographic Office from the DC area to the National Space Technologies Laboratory (NSTL, now Stennis Space Center) in southern Mississippi.
1976 (18 Feb) The Commander Naval Weather Service Command became Director Naval Oceanography and Meteorology (DNOM), an echelon 3 command under the Oceanographer of the Navy. Personnel and Budget functions were moved to the Oceanographer’s staff, and the remainder of the staff of the former Naval Weather Service Command relocated to NSTL (Mississippi) as DNOM. The R&D component of the Naval Oceanographic Office and components ofthe Office of Naval Research formed the Naval Ocean Research and Development Activity (NORDA).
1978 (29 Sep) Commander Naval Oceanography Command was established at NSTL, Mississippi, combining the functions of the Director Naval Oceanography and Meteorology and the Naval Oceanographic Office. The Commanding Officer of NAVOCEANO, CAPT John McDonnell, became the first Commander of the Naval Oceanography Command. Fleet Weather Centrals became Oceanography Centers. The Naval Oceanographic Office, formerly reporting to the Oceanographer, now reports to Commander Naval Oceanography Command.
1980 (Oct) Optimum Path Aircraft Routing System (OPARS) became operational at six sites for four aircraft types. By 1986 it would cover 130 sites and 76aircraft types.
1982 (3 Aug) The Navy Operational Global Atmospheric Prediction System (NOGAPS) became operational at the Fleet Numerical Oceanography Center.
1993 (1 Oct) Commander Naval Oceanography Command became Commander Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command.
“United States Naval Aviation 1910-1995”, Naval Historical Center (website)
“A Mini-History of Naval Weather and Oceanography”, compiled by Don Cruse, Naval Weather Service Association (website)
“150 Years of Service on the Seas – A Pictorial History of the U.S. Naval Oceanographic Office from 1830 to 1980”, Volume I (1830-1946), Marc Pinsel, U.S. Government Printing Office (out of print)
“Naval Oceanographic Office Timeline”, Jack Breyer, NAVOCEANO