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NOAA Ecological Forecasting

Protecting Human Health and Coastal Economies with Early Warnings

Predicting Ecological Change

The health of our coastal communities, economy, and ecosystems depend upon our understanding of complex and constantly changing conditions. Hazards such as pollution, extreme weather events, and climate variability are daily realities for the growing number of Americans who live in U.S. coastal shoreline counties. At NOAA, we're taking proactive steps to prepare for future conditions to help our nation become more resilient.

What is ecological forecasting?

An ecological forecast predicts changes in ecosystems and ecosystem components in response to an environmental driver such as climate variability, extreme weather conditions, pollution, or habitat change. It also provides information about how people, economies, and communities may be affected. Local authorities and members of the public use these early warnings to make decisions to protect the health and well-being of a particular area.


  • Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs), which include “red tides,” cost the U.S. economy millions of dollars each year. HABs along the shore can cause illness and death in humans, fish, and marine mammals. HAB forecasts provide information that local authorities can use to decide whether a beach needs to be closed temporarily to protect public health.
  • Predicting the presence of sea nettles in the Chesapeake Bay. A jellyfish often encountered in the Chesapeake Bay in the summer is called a sea nettle. Knowing where and when to expect this nuisance may help people avoid unpleasant encounters.

NOAA's Role in Ecological Forecasting

How is NOAA uniquely positioned to deliver ecological forecasting?

NOAA has a long history in environmental forecasting. We forecast weather, climate, tides, fishery stocks, and recovery of protected species. We also have exceptional modeling and computing capacities and are at the forefront of development and use of new environmental sensors. A massive amount of NOAA weather, climate, oceanographic, coastal, and biological data supports these efforts.

For more than a decade, NOAA has been developing experimental forecasts in areas such as harmful algal blooms, pathogens, hypoxia, sea level change, wave energy, and ocean acidification. In a few cases, NOAA has transitioned the experimental forecasts into operations. For example, NOAA produces operational Harmful Algal Bloom forecasts for the Gulf of Mexico and Lake Erie. These forecasts are based on satellite imagery, models, and field data from federal, state, and local monitoring programs; research vessels; buoys; and autonomous underwater vehicles. Combining this information allows NOAA to alert officials of the location, movement, and impacts of blooms. The forecast system also provides daily public condition reports. Forecasting methods vary based on the species and geographic area.

NOAA's Ecological Forecasting Services Roadmap: National Scale, Regional Delivery

How will NOAA improve ecological forecasting?

NOAA's Ecological Forecasting Roadmap is a plan to deliver coordinated, accurate, and resource-efficient ecological forecast products. This long term approach will allow us to meet our key mandates tied to protecting life, property, and human health, while maintaining our role as stewards of the environment.

Collaborative, systematic, ecological forecasts will build upon NOAA's ongoing investments in scientific understanding of ecosystem structure, dynamics, and functioning; advances in observational, modeling, and computational infrastructure; and experience in operational forecasting.

Can a national approach work regionally?

We recognize that what is appropriate for water quality managers in one region may not be appropriate in another. However, nationwide consistency is critical for success. That's why the Roadmap supports a consistent, national protocol for ecological forecasts while allowing the agency to continue to target development and implementation of region-specific forecasts.

Major Focus Areas and Customers

Have priority areas been identified?

NOAA has historically developed and delivered ecological forecasts on an ad hoc basis, with various parts of the agency working somewhat independently of each other. While this approach has resulted in isolated success, it has not always offered the sustained outcomes needed for reliable decision making.

The Ecological Forecasting Roadmap addresses this issue by accounting for needs expressed by stakeholders; how mature NOAA's capacity is in a particular area; and national significance. This analysis resulted in identification of four priorities: harmful algal blooms; hypoxia (sometimes called "dead zones"); and pathogens (organisms that cause disease) and habitat science.

Who are NOAA's customers?

Do you use NOAA products and services? Then YOU are a NOAA customer! Here are some examples of our key customers:

  • Federal agencies
  • Water quality managers at the state, tribal and local level
  • Commercial and recreational fishermen
  • Seafood restaurants and markets
  • Coastal tourism officials
  • Public health officials
  • The people who live, work and recreate in coastal areas

What role do NOAA's customers play?

We rely on customer input in order to develop and prioritize forecasts with limited resources. As part of our Roadmap activities, we plan to continually engage in dialogue with a broad range of customers to:

  • help guide research and development of forecasts,
  • identify appropriate delivery mechanisms,
  • establish requirements of forecast skill, and
  • receive feedback to improve our products and services.

We have gathered input from many of our customers for certain ocean health threats such as HABs and hypoxia. Input from a wide-range of customers will continue to be an integral part of our future efforts.

Partnerships are Key to NOAA's Success

It is essential for NOAA to take full advantage of our network of partners to make the most of available expertise and assets. Successful ecoforecasting depends upon continued close work with federal, state, and local partners to develop a shared vision of roles and responsibilities. This includes building on existing lines of communications and partnerships with other federal agencies; the Coastal States Organization; state coastal, natural resource, environmental, and public health agencies; multi-state entities; and multi-agency task forces. Simultaneously, we need to build upon relevant research and development activities in academic institutions, non-governmental organizations, and industry.

View current year forecasts and a map of key ecological "hotspots" around the nation.

An archive of past year forecasts and ecological forecasting news.

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