Changing times for UCAR's observing groups

As ATD becomes EOL, there's more than a new name in store


Karyn and Roger

EOL's new leaders: assistant director Karyn Sawyer and director Roger Wakimoto. (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

by Bob Henson

University scientists who call on UCAR's observing groups will find change in the air (and on the ground) over the next several years. In between their many deadlines, the people in NCAR and UOP who facilitate field projects have made time to contemplate the future. While continuing longstanding roles in field work, the groups want to broaden their expertise, step up instrument development, and make their services easier to use and access.

Much has already happened:

  • As part of NCAR's reorganization, the former Atmospheric Technology Division has become the Earth Observing Laboratory. The name reflects EOL's anticipated expansion into areas such as biogeochemical monitoring.

  • Roger Wakimoto became NCAR's associate director in charge of EOL in July. He's joined by EOL assistant director Karyn Sawyer, formerly the head of UOP's Joint Office for Science Support (JOSS).

  • Joining EOL in October are the dozen or so staff from JOSS who run operations centers, organize and archive data, and assist in planning field campaigns. The move will be seamless to users of JOSS's Web sites, who will have access to data holdings in the same way for the indefinite future, says Sawyer. Meanwhile, JOSS will continue its roles in meeting management and other administrative support under the leadership of Gene Martin.

  • EOL drafted a strategic plan last fall (see "On the Web"), now being finalized in tandem with an update of NCAR's strategic plan. EOL has also shifted its internal structure toward a matrix management approach, with team leaders drawn from across the laboratory to oversee projects.

The upshot for users isn't very dramatic yet. "We don't expect to replace anything," says William "Al" Cooper, who served as interim director of EOL in the first half of 2005. "We're trying to make EOL more systematic, more comprehensive," Cooper adds.

Finding out what the community wants and needs is critical to this approach, according to Wakimoto. "The time is right for a comprehensive survey of instrumentation within the community, " he says. The results of such a survey would help NSF and the community determine what should populate NCAR's deployment pool of NSF-supported facilities. The survey would also identify fruitful partnerships and, says Wakimoto, "it could be a wonderful teaching resource if it were Web-based and continually updated with instrument descriptions and capabilities." EOL will explore this idea over the next few months, starting with an meeting in Boulder in early August.

EOL's new groups

The full reorganization plan can be viewed on EOL's Web site.

  • Field Project Services—planning and implementation of field projects
  • Remote Sensing Facility—radars, lidars, other tools for ground- and aircraft- based platforms
  • In-Situ Sensing Facility—soundings, surface stations, flux-sensing instruments. (For historical reasons, profilers and the Radio Acoustic Sounding System will be housed in this facility.)
  • Research Aviation Facility—aircraft and related instrumentation
  • Technology Development Facility—identifying and promoting new sensing tools
  • Cyberinfrastructure and Data Services—data archival and delivery, development and maintenance of software tools
  • Design and Fabrication Services—mechanical design, machining, construction of instruments

EOL also wants to streamline the on-site data centers established for years as part of ATD-supported projects. Though popular with scientists, "they've been done in each case on an ad hoc basis. People come back from projects and the components get scattered about," says Cooper. EOL now has a group dedicated to cyberinfrastructure and data services, being formed in part through the staff arriving from JOSS. The group plans to build new software packages for displaying and manipulating data, both in real time and after field work wraps up. Together with other groups in EOL, they'll also help systematize the creation of data centers.

The new group is one of seven in EOL's revamped structure (see box). In matrix-management style, any given effort may draw project leaders and support staff from any of the seven groups. The system is modeled in part after NCAR's Research Applications Laboratory, which uses a "reservoir of capability" model to attack a range of problems in a flexible manner.

Satellite data access hasn't been a traditional strong suit of NCAR's, but that could change. "We need to decide whether EOL should enter the satellite arena and, if so, what piece of the pie we want to work with and whom to partner with," Wakimoto says. Such access would complement a move toward Earth-system field work, supporting studies
that examine urban air quality, the upper troposphere-lower stratosphere region, and seasonal changes in the biosphere-atmosphere system.

EOL's strategic plan calls out water vapor as a particular focus of new instrumentation efforts. These include highly precise tools to sample water vapor from near Earth's surface to the stratosphere. "This goal is an enormous challenge," the plan points out, "since water vapor content can vary more than three orders of magnitude in the troposphere alone." Laser-based technologies and the use of radar refractivity data are two promising approaches already in early use. Partnerships toward this goal with universities and federal laboratories in the United States and abroad are likely, says Wakimoto.

Key program areas in EOL's future

Each of these topics is detailed in Toward an Earth Observing Laboratory: A Strategic Plan for Observing Facilities and Related Services (September 2004), linked from the EOL Web site.

  • Detection and quantitative estimation of water vapor
  • Quantitative estimation of chemical trace species
  • Hydrometeor and aerosol composition sampling
  • Volumetric aerosol, cloud, precipitation, and air motion sensing
  • Scaling biogeoscience processes to geoscience applications
  • GPS-based global monitoring stations for integration with satellite data

As its mission broadens, EOL will need to guard against overcommitment. "ATD and EOL have been under immense pressure to deploy NSF facilities in major field campaigns," says Wakimoto. For example, the new NSF/NCAR Gulfstream jet—HIAPER, the High-performance Instrumented Airborne Platform for Environmental Research—wraps up its preliminary field tests late this year and promptly embarks on back-to-back major projects early in 2006.

"EOL performance in the field has been excellent," says Wakimoto, "but staff have been stressed, owing to the number of days they spend in the field." Moreover, "development efforts to prepare for the next generation of major facilities have been hampered." Wakimoto adds that EOL and NSF are now in the midst of discussions to understand these issues and identify possible solutions.

Arriving at NCAR to face an already full plate, Wakimoto plans to collaborate closely with Sawyer to meet EOL's ambitious agenda. Sawyer, who worked at NCAR from 1971 to 1981 before heading to JOSS, likes the integrative aspects of the new EOL vision. "What I know about is field campaigns. It's a really nice cap to my career to be able to use all the skills I've learned at UCAR in a single job."



Also in this issue:

Reflective research

Observation transformation: The new EOL

Ten years of SOARS

Climate affairs

ESMF: Plug-and-play modeling

New ESSL head

Catarina up close: Brazil's bizarre storm

Science Bit: The case of the disappearing lakes

President's Corner


EOL Roger Wakimoto Karyn Sawyer