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COMET awards 50th Partners Project

by Vickie Johnson, COMET

"The principal task of any meteorological institution of education and research ... is to make the weather [forecaster] realize the value of a modest theoretical education and to induce the [theoretician] to take an occasional glance at the weather map."

Those words were written in 1934 by Carl-Gustaf Rossby, one of the 20th Century's most brilliant theoretical meteorologists, and they are no less true today than they were 60 years ago. Bringing the academic community and operational forecasters together is precisely the goal of the Cooperative Program for Operational Meteorology, Education and Training's (COMET's) Outreach Program. Funded by the National Weather Service, the Outreach Program fosters a variety of university-NWS collaborations. In one of the most successful, the Partners Projects, NWS staff work with university faculty in research on a practical problem. Since the program began in 1991, 48 faculty from 33 institutions and 60 forecasters have participated. It has been a great success, and recently reached a significant milestone when funds were awarded for the 50th Partners Project, linking the State University of New York (SUNY) at Albany and the Albany NWS forecast office.

Partners Projects are generally one-year efforts in which one university faculty member and one NWS staff member work on a forecasting problem of local interest. Frequently, these projects are case studies of unusual or misforecast events. The university participants bring their theoretical knowledge to the study, and often provide analytical tools not commonly available in the forecast office. The forecaster usually provides data, but more important is an operational perspective that grounds the research in real-world applications.

Topics studied have included the use of new observing systems such as the WSR-88D radar, wind profilers, and satellite imagery; hydrological applications; severe storm research; artificial intelligence; special forecasting situations such as wave forecasting and fire weather forecasting; and improving communication with the user community.

One of the most significant aspects of the program is how little is spent and how much is gained. Funding has averaged slightly over $5,000 per project. In the beginning, there was some skepticism that this was enough to attract the interest of universities. However, the program has never lacked applicants, and in 1995 additional money was allocated to cover an unusually high number of proposals submitted (double the average for previous years).

The real success of the projects, however, is demonstrated in savings--of lives and money. One project involved Michigan Technological University, the NWS office in Anchorage, Alaska, and nearby Elmendorf Air Force Base. Its objective was to advance the operational forecasters' scientific understanding of atmospheric effects of volcanic eruptions. The result was the development of custom, multispectral techniques using satellite radiometer imagery to detect the presence and extent of airborne volcanic ash. Those techniques have been incorporated into software that ingests, processes, and distributes products to the forecaster workstation automatically. Since the study, six volcanic eruptions have occurred in which the satellite-enhanced imagery played a critical role in determining the presence, horizontal extent, and downwind position of the leading edge of the ash cloud. For example, the eruption of Mt. Klyuchivsky on 20 November 1994 sent ash up to 15,200 meters during northwest winds, blowing ash directly across the northern international air routes. Images of the ash plume allowed the NWS to issue an advisory. Over 60 commercial aircraft were diverted, and none suffered any serious damage.

Another project, between Purdue University and the Indianapolis forecast office, studied a severe weather event of 26-27 April 1994 in which a supercell and squall line bow-echo apparently interacted to produce a deadly F4 tornado. The results were presented in a workshop at the Indianapolis forecast office in March 1995. Two months later, one of the forecasters who saw that presentation successfully used the conceptual model of severe weather generated by the Purdue project to issue a tornado warning for Cass County, Indiana.

The 50th Partners Project focuses on terrain wind channeling and severe weather in the greater Albany area. Lance Bosart of SUNY at Albany and Warren Snyder from the NWS are investigating the hypothesis that terrain channeling by north-south-oriented river valleys, such as the Hudson and the Connecticut, creates an unusually favorable situation for severe weather when the synoptic-scale conditions favor deep ascent, adequate moisture, and instability over the northeastern corner of the United States. The research will focus on the 29 May 1995 tornado that occurred around Great Barrington, Massachusetts, claiming three lives and injuring more than a dozen.

In addition to the Partners Projects, the NWS funds the Outreach Program to support larger, multiyear collaborative research efforts (Cooperative Projects) and for outstanding graduate students interested in applied research in forecasting problems. The program also provides support for postdoctoral students who are given visiting scientist status at COMET and assigned to a forecast office, the NWS Training Center in Kansas City, Missouri, or the Operational Support Facility in Norman, Oklahoma.

From the NWS perspective, the main benefit of these collaborations is that the forecasters obtain a more solid understanding of their work. A broader theoretical base also allows the forecasters to apply their new knowledge in creative ways, widening their perspective. These forecasters report that their association with the academic community enhances their confidence and makes their work more exciting. University participants have frequently commented that one of the most valuable things they gain is a better understanding of the NWS--its functions, problems, and needs. The program has demonstrated that many academic researchers are extremely interested in applied forecasting research that goes well beyond an occasional glance at the weather map, not only for themselves but for their students, because the projects also provide challenging problems that enhance the education of these future meteorologists.

For more information, contact Vickie Johnson (303-497-8361 or vjohnson@ucar.edu).

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