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Affiliate Profile: University of North Dakota

by Robert Henson
UCAR Communications

The fertile, black-soiled Red River Valley of the North separates North Dakota and Minnesota. Broad and flat, it's a good place for an airport-or for an aviation training facility. The University of North Dakota's Center for Aerospace Sciences is among the world's biggest and best. Over 1,400 students flock to the UND Aerospace campus at Grand Forks each year to study flight techniques, airport management, fleet maintenance, and other facets of airborne transport

Side by side with these aviators-to-be is a contingent of meteorologists-to-be. Some 50 students are working on their bachelor's degrees within the UND atmospheric science department. Many of the aviation majors also take meteorology courses, while about 50 other students at UND Aerospace major in space science. Final approval is now being obtained for a master's-level meteorology program tailored for traditional as well as nontraditional students. The department also has a two-decade track record of research experience with grants or contracts from the Environmental Protection Agency, NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration, and NOAA. This summer it will join NCAR in a major NSF-funded study of convection over northeast Colorado.

Jeffrey Stith, head of UND's atmospheric science program. (Page 6 and 7 photos by Robert Henson.)
The striking $83 million UND Aerospace facility that looms above Interstate 29 is remarkably well equipped. Built in stages over the last decade (and connected with tunnels to ward off the Arctic wind), UND Aerospace has a CRAY 916 supercomputer and a spacious computing facility large enough to accommodate it and more computers down the line.

What difference should all this make to a sophomore or junior who's just learning the equations of motion? "Our program is unusual in that undergraduates have a chance to interact with researchers," explains Jeffrey Stith, head of the UND atmospheric science program. Stith's department is committed to undergraduate education while it makes ample room for research and training, especially on mesoscale and aviation topics.

The UND Aerospace complex, with its Doppler radar peering out from the north end.
Stith sees the UND program as providing "a grad-school experience at an undergraduate level. The students who come here get to know their professors. The attention they get from faculty is more one-on-one than they might get at schools that specialize in graduate education. And they're getting access to some really great facilities."

One place where undergraduates gain experience is the North Dakota Regional Weather Information Center (RWIC), aimed at getting data directly to farmers, travelers, and others whose needs are unserved by generic weather products. With support from NOAA, the Federal Highway Administration, and local interests, the RWIC puts out a broad suite of products. Students help write and broadcast 90-second "Prairie News Updates" that bring the latest forecasts to public television stations from Saskatchewan to South Dakota. A new information system, AgWINDS (the Agricultural Weather Information Distribution System), sends processed data to over 500 rural residents who can use the data, with software provided by RWIC, to analyze local conditions.

Just as some utility companies in the 1920s thought that farmers wouldn't have any use for electricity, "Some people didn't think that farmers had any computing power," says technician Scott Kroeber, "but we've found a few using Pentium workstations. If they can use this information to save one $30,000 application of pesticides, it's worth it. It might also save them legal costs if they can avoid spraying during high winds [when the risk of contamination increases]." The AgWINDS service has been provided free to users during the first-year shakedown, although fees might eventually be charged.

The RWIC and other outlets give students the chance to hone their forecasting skills, but it's not at the expense of academic rigor, says Stith. "We don't have 'smart synoptic' and 'dumb synoptic' courses for our majors. We feel that students who finish our undergraduate program ought to be able to go on to grad school if they so choose, although we realize that not all of them will want to. Even if some don't stay in atmospheric science at all, if they follow a course of study that forces them to sharpen their intellectual skills, they'll be prepared for other areas besides atmospheric science."

The fierce and changeable weather of the Dakotas provides plenty of grist for the mill of UND research. Derechoes (pronounced "der-ray-shows")-long-lived streaks of thunderstorm downburst winds that sometimes exceed 45 meters per second-can occur each summer, and hail is a perennial threat to agriculture. UND's atmospheric science department has been a leader in weather modification research for over two decades. Each summer, a few outstanding students from a year-long course on cloud-seeding history and technology are given the opportunity to fly with a seeding project sponsored by the North Dakota Weather Modification Board. A Doppler radar and a Citation II research jet are on hand to support departmental research.

The Grand Forks office of the National Weather Service is among the agency's most recent spin-ups in the Midwest.
Two blocks west of the white UND Doppler dome, just across the interstate, sits the newly spun-up Grand Forks office of the National Weather Service. The NWS transplants are eager to tackle local climatology and meteorology problems with their counterparts at UND. "We've already been to the university for several seminars," reports Philip Schumacher, the NWS science and operations officer at Grand Forks. "We're still getting to know each other. There's so much we'd like to do, especially with the CRAY."

Cooperation began early last year, when UND provided office space for the initial NWS staff while their building was being completed. This spring, an undergraduate with a double major in atmospheric science and aviation started part-time work at the NWS office. An open house for university faculty and staff was held at the NWS in April. Down the line, Schumacher envisions a closer partnership with UND in research, including proposing support from UCAR's Cooperative Program for Operational Meteorology, Education and Training (COMET¨). Hail and microbursts are likely to head the list of joint research topics, but there are others as well.

"One of the big forecast problems here is, 'When is it going to warm up?' It sounds like a simple thing, but the [computer] models are notoriously poor at it," says Schumacher.

Stith sees the NWS collocation as a "no-lose proposition. Having them here strengthens our program by giving our students a chance to learn about operational forecasting at the NWS, which is different than it is in private industry, for example." The new NWS Doppler radar being commissioned at Mayville, about 60 kilometers southwest of Grand Forks, will allow for dual-Doppler research on local storms. Meanwhile, UND has already embarked on a COMET Program cooperative project with the NWS office in Great Falls, Montana, to evaluate the NOAA Forecast Systems Laboratory's Local Analysis and Prediction System.

There are new research horizons elsewhere in UND Aerospace. A graduate program in earth systems science is being developed, with the emphasis on processing and interpreting data from NASA's Earth Observing System. The new degree would dovetail with other space-based research at UND, such as the current track on remote sensing and space policy.

One of Stith's own interests is something that anyone spending much time in Grand Forks during the summer is bound to see: the distinctive pouchlike formations of mammatus clouds that presage or follow thunderstorms. A paper by Stith on mammatus appeared in the March 1995 Monthly Weather Review. The clouds, he says, are "still a mystery. I don't think we really know how they form. In some ways, it's a cloud that science has forgotten. I think there's pretty good evidence that evaporation is involved-the question is why mammatus don't look like virga [streaks of evaporating rainfall]. My guess is that they form in a stable region that gives them their pouchlike appearance."

UND's Citation II jet is performing high-altitude data collection this summer in northeast Colorado as part of the Stratosphere/Troposphere Experiment: Radiation, Aerosols, and Ozone (STERAO). (Photo courtesy of UND.)

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Last revised: Tue Apr 4 09:33:26 MDT 2000