Saturday, April 30, 2011

A Network of Radars and the Science of Forecasting Tornadoes

The devastation in the South, and especially in Alabama, following the tornadoes this past week is horrifying.

According to By early this morning, emergency management officials tallied 252 deaths in Alabama, 34 in Tennessee, 33 in Mississippi, 15 in Georgia, 5 in Virginia and 1 in Arkansas. Since 1680, there has been only one other date in U.S. history on which more people died during a severe weather outbreak, according to weather experts, when on March 18, 1925, a severe storm system swept across seven states killing 747 people, according to the National Weather Service.

Immediately when I heard the news this past week, I contacted colleagues at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa (the tornado hit 5 miles from their home) and colleagues at the University of Alabama in Birmingham (they are OK, too). I was personally affected, even though located miles away, since my flights were cancelled on Thursday and I missed a memorial service and symposium at Cornell.

The media had been reporting that it was difficult to forecast such major weather events and I was thinking about the research that is being conducted by the NSF Engineering Research Center known as CASA, which is headed by UMass Amherst. CASA (which means "home" in Spanish) stands for the Collaborative Adaptive Sensing of the Atmosphere and this center is involved in the designing of technology, specifically, radars, and their placement in networks, to forecast major weather events, including tornadoes.

CASA's Director at UMass Amherst is Professor David McLaughlin (who is also now the Associate Dean of Engineering) and, would you believe, that almost on the same date (but a few years before the recent tornadoes in Alabama and 5 other states), McLaughlin spoke in our UMass Amherst INFORMS Speaker Series?! His talk, Chasing Interdisciplinarity while Chasing Tornadoes: An Overview of the CASA Engineering Research Center was fantastic (and you can see his abstract and find more info here).

Lo and behold, now The New York Times is reporting on the research of CASA, which is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in a ten year project. The article notes how CASA is a collaboration among several universities with expertise in radars, weather forecasting, and focuses also on emergency preparedness and management. The other universities, in addition to UMass Amherst, are: the University of Oklahoma, Colorado State, and the University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez.

Specifically, this group works on designing and building radars (my husband spent his sabbatical at CASA plus the researchers there I consider as colleagues) and setting them up as a network in order to predict weather more locally and quicker. Every year a group from UMass travels to the tornado-ridden areas to, literally, gather data while chasing tornadoes. The group includes students who drive the trucks with the radar gear in back, and, believe me, you should hear their "war" stories.

Of course, it is important to be able to produce the necessary radars in a cost efficient way so that they could be deployed on a scale to help.

Indeed, as The Times stated in the article:

Emergency managers said the radar network would provide more detailed pictures of smaller areas, and could have applications for traffic control and fire protection.

You can read more about chasing tornadoes in the VORTEX2 project here.

What a critical time now to get such radars deployed! Just imagine if the huge losses in terms of lives and property could have been avoided!