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President's Corner

Connecting the dots: Earth science ­partnerships between South and North America

Science increasingly requires strong international partnerships that share knowledge, information, and other resources. This is particularly true in the geosciences, where the highly coupled nature of the Earth system and the need to understand global environmental processes and their regional linkages have heightened the importance of collaborations across national and continental boundaries.

Below are two examples in which partnerships among UCAR, NCAR, and the university community, working with NOAA and NSF, are bringing South and North American scientists together through the sharing of weather observations and satellite imagery. Access to these data has had profound and transformative impacts on higher education in several South American countries, as well as benefiting students and researchers throughout the hemisphere.

Real-time weather data through MeteoForum and IDD-Brazil

There are compelling benefits to a global cyberinfrastructure and networked communities, helping institutions and people to exchange knowledge, ideas, and resources. Under the sponsorship of NSF, UCAR’s Unidata Program has developed a growing portfolio of international outreach activities, conducted in close collaboration with academic, research, and operational institutions on several continents, to advance Earth system science education and research. The portfolio includes data, tools, support, and training, as well as outreach activities that bring various stakeholders together to address important issues, with the goal of building a community with a shared vision.

“Now one only needs inexpensive personal computers and access to the Internet (with the help and vision of groups like Unidata) to study phenomena that affect society.”

—Vilma Castro, University of Costa Rica

MeteoForum began as a pilot project in 2001 involving two UOP programs: Unidata and COMET. The latter is itself a partnership sponsored by NOAA, the U.S. Navy and Air Force, Environment Canada, and Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology.


Unidata IDD network connecting South and North America. (Image courtesy Unidata.)

Supported by private UCAR funds and COMET and Unidata program funds, MeteoForum began as a collaboration among four of the World Meteorological Organization’s Regional Meteorological Training Centers (RMTCs) and a handful of universities. Together, the four RMTCs span North, Central, and South America, and the Caribbean. MeteoForum was designed to help RMTCs improve their service in the areas of hydrometeorology, agriculture, and disaster management. By accessing a comprehensive collection of training materials, software, and real-time and historic data, the RMTCs would be able to enrich the education they offer to hydrometeorological professionals.

Unidata facilitated the multi-way sharing of data through a regionally configured and managed extension of its Internet Data Distribution (IDD) system. MeteoForum RMTC participants are responsible for acquiring computer hardware and Internet access, working with Unidata and COMET to train local personnel, supplementing curricula with real-time data and interactive multimedia materials, and developing and sharing new curriculum elements. RMTC representatives also translated some COMET modules into Spanish (see related article).

One important outgrowth of MeteoForum has been the emergence of a data distribution system for South America, the IDD-Brazil. This collaboration involves Unidata and several Brazilian institutions, including

  • the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro,
  • the University of São Paulo,
  • the Federal University of Pará, and
  • the Center for Weather and Climate Studies (CPTEC).

The creation of IDD-Brazil was in line with Unidata’s broader goals of facilitating real-time data access at no cost for educators and researchers and supporting faculty in making use of these data, while building a community where data, tools, and best practices in education and research can be shared. The Brazilian and North American IDDs are now components of a hemisphere-wide network that has catalyzed sharing of international, national, and locally held environmental datasets (see figure). Previously unavailable observational data and high-resolution model output for Brazil can now be accessed in near–real time by participants throughout the Americas. The IDD continues to expand: it has recently been extended into Antarctica, and efforts are under way to extend it to the Caribbean and Africa.

The IDD-Brazil has helped initiate teaching innovations in multiple geoscience disciplines at the universities of Costa Rica, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and Chile, among others. As many professors of meteorology know, there is no substitute for current weather data to stimulate students’ interest. Integration of real-time world data has provided opportunities for student-centered and inquiry-based learning, infusing the excitement of discovery into geoscience courses at these institutions.

Bringing GOES-10 satellite data for South America to the community

Another recent partnership is making satellite data for South America freely available to the university and broader ­community. In July 1998, NOAA’s tenth Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES-10)—launched the year before—was moved into position to serve as GOES-West, gathering imagery from above western North America and the eastern Pacific Ocean. GOES-10 recently passed the end of its expected lifespan. However, NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS) recognized that GOES-10 could perform a valuable function if it were devoted to serving South America during its remaining usable life. South American coverage by GOES-East has always been poor, and it is essentially non-existent during periods of significant weather in the Northern Hemisphere. There is a long history of satellites being repurposed at the end of their expected lifetimes; this was true of GOES-7 in the United States, and Meteosat-5 and now Meteosat-7 in Europe.

“IDD-Brazil and MeteoForum have provided a significant change in our undergraduate and graduate level programs in meteorology. The free access to real-time information provides a unique experience for the professors to use updated information in the classes with case studies based on regional systems. We are convinced that our students will have better chances in their professional activities with the type of training acquired in the use of the facilities provided by the system.”

—Pedro Silva Dias, Institute of Astronomy, Geophysics and Atmospheric Sciences, University of São Paolo

Through an agreement between the WMO and several Central and South American countries, NOAA recently agreed to dedicate the GOES-10 spacecraft to routine observations of South America. It will provide operational weather services with consistent satellite coverage at high temporal and spatial resolution and complement the more northerly focus of GOES-East and GOES-West. This will be the first operational, three-satellite, geostationary constellation in U.S. history, and GOES-10 will be the first U.S. satellite dedicated to South American surveillance.

UCAR recognizes the importance of these new data for its community and is working to provide them in real time through remote server technologies and in archived form through the NCAR Mass Storage System. One of the major hurdles in this process is to acquire and archive the data in the most useful format. Over the last few years, several groups at UCAR and NCAR have been ingesting and archiving GOES imagery using SeaSpace’s TeraScan format. While this is extremely useful for sites with TeraScan analysis capabilities, much of the Unidata community is more accustomed to working with data in the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s McIDAS AREA format.


The GOES-10 imagery available on Unidata’s Web page through a University of Wisconsin data stream includes hemispheric composites for visible, infrared, and water vapor imagery. Clicking on still images activates a 48-hour animation. More details.

To address this problem, Unidata and several partners recently launched a proof-of-concept project to ingest GOES-10 data at the NCAR Mesa Laboratory and make it available in the AREA format through remote access technologies available through Unidata. This was accomplished in a very inexpensive fashion, thanks to contributions that include

  • a satellite dish excessed by NCAR’s Computational and Information Systems Laboratory;
  • a satellite receiver from an obsolete TeraScan system provided by NCAR’s Research Applications Laboratory (RAL);
  • the SSEC Data Ingestor (SDI) software for GOES ground stations from UW’s Space Science and Engineering Center;
  • an SDI PC interface card contributed by The Weather Underground, a long-time member of the Unidata community;
  • computer room infrastructure provided by RAL; and
  • system and network operations support from Unidata, including expertise with satellite ingest software.

To strengthen the system and provide remote access to real-time GOES-West data, a new satellite receiver will be purchased and maintained with the help of expertise from RAL and NCAR’s Earth Observing Laboratory (EOL). The data will be relayed to the community through powerful and scalable servers in UCAR and the Unidata community that make use of Unidata’s Thematic Realtime Environmental Distributed Data Services. Since NOAA will not be archiving data from the repurposed GOES-10 spacecraft, RAL and EOL will provide a multi-year running archive through the NCAR Mass Storage System.

The GOES-10 spacecraft completed its eastward drift from longitude 135°W to 60°W in early December. On the evening of 30 January, Unidata successfully began ingesting GOES-10 imagery and distributing it to the UCAR community through the IDD. The data will benefit operational weather services throughout South America as well as research and development activities in universities across the Americas, U.S. government agencies, nonprofit groups, and a variety of international communities, in addition to NCAR and UOP programs and services.

Together, the access to data from all three operational GOES spacecraft will greatly enhance existing research and educational endeavors and allow for the creation of new and unexpected opportunities. Thousands of students, faculty, and research staff across the Western Hemisphere will benefit. The GOES-10 imagery will be particularly important for several field projects whose online catalogs are managed by EOL. These include the Climate Prediction Project for the Americas, the Variability of the American Monsoon Experiment (VAMOS) Ocean Cloud Atmosphere Land Study, and the Monsoon Experiment South America.

Rick Anthes

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