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Summer 1999

How Unidata helps small schools tackle big projects

by Bob Henson

When there's cramming or partying to be done, some undergraduates don't get to bed till dawn. All the more noteworthy, then, that a handful of meteorologists-to-be in New England roused themselves at 5:00 a.m. each morning--weekdays and weekends alike--to make forecasts for the Mt. Washington Icing Sensor Project (MWISP) during the month of April.

"I was amazed," says assistant professor Pamela Grube of Lyndon State College in Lyndon, Vermont. The forecasts for Mt. Washington were issued at 8:00 a.m. each day by student teams at Lyndon State and at Plymouth State College, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) to the south in Plymouth, New Hampshire. Both groups predicted cloud depth, base, and height, as well as the heights of the temperature layers at 0, -10, and -20°C (32, 14, and -4°F), all at six-hour increments. "It's a rather detailed forecast," says Grube. "It's good experience because the deadline is very operational."

A typical April day on the summit of Mt. Washington. (Photo by Bob Henson.)

The meteorology programs at both Lyndon and Plymouth are among the best-known academic units at their schools. However, they are small in funding and enrollment compared to research behemoths such as the Universities of Washington or Oklahoma. How do these smaller departments maintain a high-quality educational experience with limited dollars? Part of the answer is UCAR's Unidata program. Unidata provides over 140 colleges and universities with access to real-time weather data and software for analyzing those data. To support their day-to-day teaching as well as special projects like MWISP, smaller schools rely heavily on Unidata.

"To put it bluntly, without Unidata, I doubt if our program would be here today, at least if we want to have the students look at current weather information," says professor James Koermer, the department head at Plymouth State. Both Lyndon State and Plymouth were among the institutions that helped plan the creation of Unidata with NSF and UCAR in the mid-1980s. They were also among the first 20 to obtain Unidata broadcasts of satellite imagery through the University of Wisconsin's McIDAS system. Today, Plymouth State maintains a Ku-band satellite feed from Alden Electronics for printing and posting large maps and gathering basic observation data. Most of its other real-time data, and all of Lyndon's, arrive through Unidata's Internet Data Distribution (IDD) system.

Rather than having data shipped from a single center, the university community banded together--with Unidata guidance and support--to build a national distribution system that uses Unidata software at each school's site. Member institutions assume the responsibility for relaying data to each other from various sources so that no one computer or network link gets overburdened. Users "subscribe" for each data stream of interest; the products in the stream are delivered as soon as they are available from the source. "The IDD may have been the original example of Internet 'push' technology," says Unidata program manager Ben Domenico, referring to data that are sent to the user through prearrangement rather than sought out a la carte.

"Unidata gives us a vast amount of data that wouldn't be gotten any other way," says Harry Maybeck, who oversaw Plymouth State's forecasting team for MWISP. Although many weather products can be retrieved from the Web, says Maybeck, the user might have to go to ten or more Web sites to get the required data, and even then it might not be in a useful form. "When we get it [from Unidata], it's already been put in a package we can use. It's a great time saver and a greater source of accuracy."

In October 1993, Don Murray--now at Unidata, then at Lyndon State--launched a Gopher server to help get weather information to local schools. The following spring, Plymouth State and (a few months later) Lyndon State leaped onto the Web with real-time public weather pages that were among the nation's first. Much of the sites' content is produced through Unidata-supported software, such as its Local Data Manager and McIDAS. For instance, Lyndon uses McIDAS-based scripts to produce an animated global jet-stream image, a popular stop on the college's Web page. McIDAS-derived products are freely placed on the Web for public access at both schools, although licensing restrictions prohibit (except for local Web access) some radar and lightning products obtained through IDD feeds from Weather Services Incorporated and the State University of New York at Albany.

Along with many of its fellow Unidata institutions, Lyndon State makes extensive use of the Linux operating system, a university-based offshoot of UNIX that operates as free software. After Lyndon and other schools began using Linux, Unidata responded by providing support for the system. Meanwhile, Plymouth State is the first Unidata school to try a similar operating system called FreeBSD on PC-based systems. The department spent $2,000 for one non-FreeBSD system software upgrade last year, says Koermer. "Especially for the smaller schools, it's sometimes hard to come up with even $2,000 for an upgrade." The school is taking Unidata source codes and adapting them to FreeBSD; for instance, Unidata's Steve Chiswell recently helped port GEMPAK, an analysis program, to the FreeBSD system.

Many of today's television weathercasters honed their forecasting skills by using Unidata products at their alma maters, including Lyndon State, which produces more than its share of TV weathermen and weatherwomen. The broadcast program is among several career tracks at Lyndon that prepare students for either the National Weather Service, private industry, or graduate school. Plymouth State, which has a single, traditional degree track for its B.S. in meteorology, also uses Unidata resources to help train students who want broadcast experience; they produce a nightly weather segment for their local community access channel by combining Unidata products with chromakey and other television technology.

"It's really all possible because of the Unidata support," says Koermer. Mark Tucker, who manages computing systems at Lyndon State, concurs: "It's about the best support I've ever seen for anything computer-related." Lyndon State averages 100 meteorology majors per year, according to faculty member William Fingerhut. This makes the assistance from Unidata critical for a high-quality program. "We don't have the financial resources and the in-house support to maintain all the high-tech equipment and software you need these days," says Fingerhut, who has worked with Unidata for over a decade. "We just couldn't do it without Unidata, and I think all the smaller schools would say the same thing."

See the Lyndon State weather page. See the Plymouth State's weather page.


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Last revised: Tue Apr 4 15:10:57 MDT 2000