by Robert Henson
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From humble beginnings on a windswept prairie, the University of Oklahoma has become one of the Southwest's leading research universities in the earth and atmospheric sciences. An increasing concentration of meteorological laboratories is based in the university city of Norman, about 20 miles south of Oklahoma City. These centers combine with OU's School of Meteorology to provide a synergism among academic, operational, and research meteorologists that is unusual in its size and scope.
"Not a tree or shrub broke the interminable monotony of that hardpan desert." Such was the response of David Ross Boyd, OU's first president, as he came upon the embryonic campus in 1891. The school was only a year old, and Norman had erupted from grasslands only two years earlier, during the first land run into what was then Oklahoma Territory. Growth came quickly to the state and to OU, and with it came OU's role as a regional center for graduate education. The oil boom of the 1920s led to strong programs in geology and petroleum engineering, and the postwar research boom further expanded the university's science curricula. These trends helped OU grow to its present enrollment of 25,000 students at campuses in Norman and Oklahoma City.
In 1960, professor Yoshi Sasaki founded the OU School of Meteorology. The program granted its first Ph.D. in 1963 and first B.S. in 1965. In 1981, the school became part of OU's College of Geosciences, which also includes the Department of Geography and the School of Geology and Geophysics. The college moved into the 15-story Sarkeys Energy Center upon its completion in July 1991. The School of Meteorology occupies the building's top three floors, with a rooftop observation deck that affords commanding views of central Oklahoma.
OU ranks among the nation's largest schools of atmospheric science at both undergraduate and graduate levels. As of May 1994, OU had awarded approximately 380 bachelor's, 250 master's, and 60 doctoral degrees in meteorology. There are currently some 200 undergraduates and about 80 graduate students enrolled in meteorology. Regular faculty numbers 17, with a similar number of adjunct faculty, most of whom are scientists at NOAA's National Severe Storms Laboratory (see next paragraph). The school has a basic synoptic meteorology laboratory and classroom with continuous reception of weather data and imagery, as well as laboratories for microcomputers, computer graphics, instrumentation, and atmospheric physics. All computers tied to the Norman meteorological community (collectively referred to as the Oklahoma Weather Center) are linked to each other via high-speed networks and to the Internet via dedicated lines.
OU's faculty and students work with a rich pool of expertise based in Norman. In the 1960s, a severe-storm research project began at Max Westheimer Field, which serves as OU's north campus. In 1965, the project became the National Severe Storms Laboratory. NSSL has led the way in the development and use of Doppler weather radar for tracking tornadoes and severe thunderstorms.
Further expansion of meteorology on the north campus began in 1986, when Oklahoma City's NWS office moved into a new building there. Later in the 1980s, NOAA established its Operational Support Facility to foster deployment of the National Weather Service's NEXRAD network (Next-Generation Weather Radar, also called WSR-88D). Other centers have been created in conjunction with the School of Meteorology, including the Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies (CIMMS), founded in 1978; the Oklahoma Climatological Survey, in 1980; and the NSF-supported Center for Analysis and Prediction of Storms (CAPS), in 1989. Most recently, NOAA has established a facility in Norman that will become the National Storm Prediction Center, eventually replacing and updating many of the functions of the National Severe Storms Forecast Center in Kansas City. CAPS is expected to play a role in the development of better short-term prediction models that will be of use in this center. CAPS director Kelvin Droegemeier uses high-speed conventional and massively parallel computers to model microbursts, supercells, and fluid-flow problems. One goal of CAPS is to develop the Advanced Regional Prediction System (ARPS), which will use real-time observations from advanced observing platforms to produce computer simulations of storm-scale phenomena.
Oklahoma's plethora of dangerous weather has helped make OU a leader in research into mesoscale and storm scale meteorology. Since the 1970s, professor Howard Bluestein and colleagues have furthered the art of storm chasing as a way to make direct observations of severe weather and verify remote observations. Instrument packages such as Turtles (pressure, temperature, and relative humidity sensors in weighted containers to be placed in the path of tornadoes) and portable Doppler radars have been deployed through collaborations between OU and NSSL. This spring the Norman meteorological community is heavily involved in the second year of VORTEX, the Verification of the Origins of Rotation in Tornadoes Experiment. There will be a report on this experiment, and the host of people and observing systems involved in it, in the Summer issue of the UCAR Quarterly.
Other research interests of OU faculty cover a wide range, including instrumentation, synoptic meteorology, lightning processes, hydrometeorology, computer modeling, geophysical fluid dynamics, planetary atmospheres, data assimilation, turbulence, radiative transfer, and climate processes.
For more information on OU's programs, contact the School of Meteorology, University of Oklahoma, 100 East Boyd, Suite 1310, Norman, OK 73019 (405-325-6561). The school maintains a World Wide Web site at http://geowww.gcn.uoknor.edu/WWW/SOM/SOM.html