Engineering Solutions for Society’s Problems: Colorado State a Key Partner in $40 Million Hazardous Weather Prediction Center — New National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center Will Revolutionize

Colorado State University is a key partner in a new $40 million research center that will revolutionize weather sensing technology and ensure earlier and more accurate forecasts of hazardous weather events. Based on a $17 million National Science Foundation grant announced today, the NSF Engineering Research Center for Collaborative Adaptive Sensing of the Atmosphere, or  CASA, will significantly increase warning and response times for tornadoes, floods and other severe weather events with far greater accuracy than current systems.

"Colorado State’s key participation in this new NSF Engineering Research Center is another example of this university’s leadership in research, education and service to society," said Larry Edward Penley, president of Colorado State University. "This multidisciplinary center has the promise of protecting countless lives and saving millions of dollars through developing advanced severe weather detection systems. Colorado State is proud to be a key partner in this cooperative national effort."

CASA is a collaboration of the nation’s leading engineers, atmospheric scientists and computer science experts from Colorado State; the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, which is leading the center; the University of Oklahoma; and the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez. CASA’s industry partners include Raytheon, IBM, MA/COM, Vaisala, Vieux and Associates, Telephonics and The Weather Channel.

Government partners include NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Labs. Colorado State University has a strong record in remote sensing and atmospheric science and houses the nation’s most advanced weather radar, the CSU-CHILL radar facility jointly operated by the departments of atmospheric science and electrical and computer engineering.

"Being designated a National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center is probably the highest accolade an engineering program can earn," said Neal Gallagher, dean of Colorado State’s College of Engineering. "We are pleased to have a leadership role in this prestigious center."

Through developing scientific advances in remote sensing, distributed networked computation and atmospheric modeling, the project’s leaders anticipate the new system will:

  • significantly improve lower-atmosphere weather detection and forecasting;
  • save lives and property through better and earlier hazardous weather warnings;
  • save millions of dollars in emergency management and cleanup costs;
  • provide significant economic benefits to the nation as the technology becomes developed and widely adapted; and
  • provide a wide variety of educational opportunities to students from kindergarten through doctoral programs.

"The nation’s ability to monitor, anticipate and respond to dangerous weather events is very important as hazardous local weather such as tornadoes, thunderstorms, snow storms and floods can destroy property and take lives in a matter of minutes," said V. Chandra, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Colorado State and associate director of CASA. "However, the portion of the atmosphere that contains critical information on the bulk of these hazards, the lower troposphere, is grossly undersampled by current technologies. CASA will develop an advanced system of radar networks to overcome these problems."

The most significant element of the CASA system will be its ability to overcome the observing   limitations of existing technology. Current observing systems employ high-power, long-range radars that are blocked from observing the lower part of the atmosphere by the earth’s curvature, leaving 72 percent of the lower troposphere essentially unobserved.

"The national weather radar network is fundamentally limited in its ability to sample the lower troposphere, seriously impacting the accuracy of warnings, predictions and forecasts," said Steven Rutledge, head of the Atmospheric Science Department at Colorado State and a principal investigator in CASA. "Any significant improvement in atmospheric and weather forecasting requires entirely new approaches to observing the lowest most critical regions of the atmosphere."

CASA will overcome the effects of the earth’s curvature by developing and arranging low-cost, dense networks of radars operating at short range. In contrast to today’s high-power radars that have 30 foot antennas and stand three stories tall, the radars being developed by CASA are few feet wide with electronics approximately the size of a personal computer.

However, accurate sensing of the lower atmosphere is only part of the challenge of observing, understanding and responding to atmospheric hazards. The additional problem of effectively collecting the needed decision-making information to multiple end users, especially emergency managers and first-responders, is vitally important yet often unachievable based on limitations of current approaches. CASA will design radar technologies to adaptively reconfigure and serve the needs of multiple end users.

"This is really end-user based engineering, where CASA leaders will develop systems that can be operated adaptively to serve the needs of multiple end users," said Chandra. "Our goal is to build an engineered system where the radars and other sensors can be controlled by emergency management leaders and tailored to their specific needs."

The CASA team is developing low-power solid-state radars, which are highly reliable, inexpensive, adaptive and can operate collaboratively as a system. This networked system will be capable of having end users determine needs and allocate resources, such as power, frequency and bandwidth, to regions where threats exist, allowing systems to be controlled by end users for decision making.

Once the technology is developed, three large CASA test beds will be deployed. The first will occur in mid-2005 in Oklahoma and will cover roughly 20 percent of the state – a region that experiences about 22 tornadoes per year – and test the improvement of tornado forecasting and warnings.  

The second test bed, headed by Colorado State, will be in Houston and will deploy an adaptive system of radars to monitor and predict floods more accurately. This test also will strive to improve the monitoring of air pollution and air transport of chemicals.

A third test, in Puerto Rico, will improve monitoring of floods produced by thunderstorms and hurricanes over the island.

The project includes three main research thrusts. The sensing thrust, co-lead by Chandra at Colorado State, will use remote sensing expertise to develop and test the novel radars and radar configurations. The prediction thrust also is being lead by Colorado State’s Atmospheric Science Department. Rutledge is co-leading this effort with colleagues at the University of Oklahoma to conduct a broad range of fundamental research in the atmospheric sciences needed for the project, developing new prediction models based on the improved technologies. Colorado State also is heavily involved in the third research area, the distributing thrust, which is responsible for creating the computing and communication infrastructure needed to network the system.

Colorado State and the CASA partners will operate CASA aided by $40 million in funding over a five-year period. This funding includes a $17 million grant from the National Science Foundation, $5 million from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, university contributions and nearly $6 million from corporations and in-kind donations.

CASA is one of four new centers created as a result of a recent proposal competition, in which more than 100 teams competed for the prestigious Engineering Research Center designation. The NSF currently funds 24 engineering research centers nationwide. The centers are designed to partner university researchers with industry and government practitioners to tackle issues too complex and expensive for one sector alone. All engineering research centers also must have a large educational component.  

CASA has plans to engage schoolchildren using the ‘hook’ of weather to introduce kids to engineering. University students will work in teams alongside industrial practitioners and academic researchers, designing and testing sensors in the field and working with end users to interpret sensor data.

Downloadable Broadcast Quality Audio:

Earth curvature effects prevent 72% of the troposphere below 1 km from being observed

Earth curvature effects prevent 72% of the troposphere below 1 km from being observed

Related News/Press Releases