Slick roads meet their match

NCAR tests new winter safety system near Denver

by Nicole Gordon

Drivers who take the E-470 toll road east of Denver may have noticed five weather stations along the way. What they probably don’t know is that these stations feed information to a groundbreaking Web-based system developed at NCAR. The system not only makes E-470 safer to drive down during the winter, but it will eventually be used by road managers in cold climates around the country and possibly the world. The tests continue through May.


New software is helping to guide snowplows on the E-470 toll road. (Photo by William Mahoney.)

Called the Maintenance Decision Support System, the MDSS promises to save lives, control costs and chemical use, and keep drivers on the move. It works by gathering real-time information from forecasts, weather stations, and surface observations and analyzing it in different ways to predict road conditions. Road crews receive pavement and subsurface temperatures, humidity, and wind speeds for short segments of road, followed by recommendations for when and where to plow and use anti-icing chemicals.

“The MDSS has really helped E-470 be able to put the right chemicals in the right amount down on the road at the right time,” says J. Matthew Alexander, director of maintenance for E-470. “This helps us control costs, and it’s much better for the environment.”

NCAR developed the MDSS with sponsorship from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and support from colleagues at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, NOAA Forecast Systems Laboratory, and the U.S. Army’s Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory.

The system will become available operationally to state departments of transportation via the private sector. “The bottom line is that departments of transportation can use the MDSS to stay on top of weather situations, and the level of service on the highway should be better, ” says NCAR scientist William Mahoney, MDSS project lead.

The MDSS technology has been publicly available for three years as part of the FHWA’s ongoing research program. The E-470 test bed is part of that research effort, Mahoney says. To date, more than 30 organizations, including commercial companies, have received copies of the MDSS code, he adds.

One of the most significant aspects of the MDSS is that it can learn from past experiences. The program can review past forecasts from different sources to see which was most accurate regarding the start of a storm, its duration, and the type and amount of precipitation.

When the program makes a new forecast, it will factor in the past forecasts and give more weight to historically accurate ones.

Commercial weather service providers are working with several state departments of transportation in the Upper Midwest to implement the software. Weather service providers in Canada and northern Europe have expressed interest as well. After state road crews in Iowa tested the MDSS during the past two winters, the Iowa Department of Transportation estimated that the system could save between 10% and 15% of its annual maintenance costs.

“Highway agencies around the world are eager to obtain better weather information and use it more effectively,” Mahoney says. “We need weather and road condition forecasts that are more specific, more timely, and tailored for decision makers who are not meteorologists.” ®

Also in this issue:

Going to extremes

Up close with Caribbean cumulus

Face time across the miles

A sabbatical at the foundation

New division directors at NCAR

President’s Corner - India in 2005 and the legacy of MONEX

Science Bit - Liquid at work on Saturn’s largest moon

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