Exhibit reveals the many ‘Treasures of NOAA’s Ark’

Residents get a glimpse of what goes on in Silver Spring government agency

Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2006

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Laurie DeWitt⁄The Gazette
During an exhibit called ‘‘The Treasures of NOAA’s Ark,” a visitor browses a display on geodetics, a field which measures the Earth’s surface in 3-D. The exhibit, which was on display Feb. 6 through Saturday, gave visitors a glimpse inside the Silver Spring-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the history of the nearly 200-year-old administration.

A dock strewn with blue fishing nets overlooked an assortment of scientific instruments, technical equipment and replicas, creating a scene more typical of a wharf than the inside of a government building.

But nestled among large crates, these artifacts, which seemed to be shipped from a bygone time, were the perfect props to illustrate the history of an agency steeped in maritime science and technology.

‘‘These artifacts tell the story of NOAA,” said Cheryl Oliver, senior program advisor for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Preserve American Initiative, which hosted ‘‘The Treasures of NOAA’s Ark,” on display Feb. 6 through last Saturday in NOAA’s Silver Spring headquarters.

Oliver organized the second year of this event, which opened to the public as a porthole to the wonders of NOAA’s work over the past two centuries.

‘‘Next year will be the 200th anniversary of our root organization, the Coast and Geodetic Survey, started by Thomas Jefferson in 1807,” Oliver said.

While the exhibit tells the tale of a U.S. Department of Commerce administration that grew from several different agencies, NOAA’s story is more than just a professional one for Oliver. She began work at NOAA four years after her father’s death in 1982. Her father worked as an electronic engineer for NOAA’s National Weather Service.

‘‘I carry his ID with me,” she said, pulling it from behind her own NOAA identification.

Just as NOAA is part of Oliver’s personal legacy, NOAA’s history is part of the nation’s.

Part of the exhibit included a re-creation of a marine lab typically used by the Bureau of Fisheries, the predecessor of today’s Fisheries Service, in the 1920s and 1930s.

A rustic shack with a corrugated metal roof, the lab included microscopes and specimens in jars.

‘‘I like the fish shack because the isopod is the biggest bug I’ve ever seen,” said Jazmine Allen, 10, who came with her mother, Mildred Allen, who works for NOAA’s Marine and Aviation Operations. ‘‘It’s found in the Gulf of Mexico, in the deep water.”

Marine labs such as this one were used as temporary research stations that were torn down when the scientists moved to a new location.

‘‘This was a smelly job. It was all using live material,” said John Collins of the NOAA Fisheries Service.

Collins described how in the 1920s and 1930s, Bureau of Fisheries scientists would put metal tags on certain fish to glean information such as migration patterns. Fishermen would then mail those tags to the bureau in envelopes provided by the bureau.

Collins displayed such an envelope dated Aug. 26, 1932, which showed the handwriting of fisherman John Noys, who found the tag on a 17-inch-long fish while he was cleaning it.

The exhibit also paid tribute to historical pioneers of such scientific efforts. One of these was Rachel Carson, the author of ‘‘Silent Spring,” who was a science writer for the Bureau of Fisheries and lived in Silver Spring.

Another was George Washington Carver, thought to be one of the first African Americans to supply weather data to the U.S. Weather Bureau. Today, the National Weather Service continues to have a Cooperative Observers Program, in which volunteers collect weather data for the service.

In addition to the Fisheries and Weather Services, NOAA also includes the National Ocean Service, the National Environmental Satellite, Data and Information Service, and NOAA Research. It’s also supported by the NOAA Corps, the seventh uniformed service.

Aside from the historical pieces on display, the exhibit also showed more modern types of technology that NOAA uses, such as different kinds of sonar to map the undersea world. Sound waves hit the bottom of the sea and come back up to provide measurements.

‘‘It sort of paints the sea floor,” said David L. Hall, media coordinator for NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries.

John Nyberg, a cartographer with the NOAA Coast Survey, described different kinds of sonar, including single beam, multibeam and side-scan types. Nyberg also described how side-scan sonar was used after Hurricane Katrina to help identify obstructions to be removed from shipping channels.

From the ocean floor to the skies, the exhibit featured in one corner of the room a glowing ‘‘Magic Planet,” a global sphere onto which oceanographic, coastal, geophysical, or climactic satellite data could be projected.

Nina Jackson, an outreach specialist with the Satellite and Information Service, demonstrated different types of views such as reddish light showing areas of warmth, or clusters of white lights near cities representing nighttime lights.

Some NOAA tools have also been used by the public for recreation. Eric Duvall with the NOAA Geodetic Survey displayed a brass station disk. Disks like it function as survey markers and are placed in locations all over the U.S. The disks’ positions would be compared to their positions several years prior to measure Earth motion.

Hall said people who are involved with geocaching, or recreational expeditions using global positioning system devices, would try to locate these disks.

But Duvall noted that those devices are not as accurate as the instruments used by the Geodetic Survey.

‘‘People will call and say your position is off,” said Duvall. ‘‘We ask, ‘What were you using?’ And they say a handheld. Most are 10 to 20 feet off. We get within 10 to 20 centimeters of it.”