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The National Science Foundation today awarded Colorado State University and its partners a $19 million Science and Technology Center to build climate models that will more accurately depict cloud processes and improve climate and weather forecasting for scientists around the world.
Since the 1960s, scientists have used climate models to understand and predict future systematic changes in weather that affect the planet and particularly farmers, utilities, insurance companies and government agencies.
The NSF Science and Technology Center for Multi-Scale Modeling of Atmospheric Processes will be based at Colorado State in the College of Engineering’s renowned Department of Atmospheric Science. David Randall, professor of atmospheric science since 1988, will serve as principal investigator and director of the center. Co-principal investigators include John Helly of the San Diego Supercomputer Center at the University of California, San Diego; Chin-Hoh Moeng of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder; and Scott Denning and Wayne Schubert of Colorado State’s Atmospheric Science department. Cindy Carrick will serve as the administrative director of the center.
The NSF Cooperative Agreement to create the Science and Technology Center is for $19 million for the first five years, with the potential for a renewal for another $20 million over the following five years.
"Our College of Engineering continues to be a world leader in critical research related to environmental sustainability and climate," said Colorado State President Larry Edward Penley. "This new Science and Technology Center, which will advance the complicated science of climate forecasting, is a significant recognition of the important work conducted by Dr. Randall and his colleagues. This project is particularly special because it will also enable Colorado State to expand its outreach to K-12 teachers and help encourage young people to explore their interests in math and science."
"Our atmospheric scientists continue to make their mark in the world, developing new modeling techniques that someday will lead to reduced loss of life and property damage from extreme weather events," added Sandra Woods, dean of the College of Engineering.
Even with very large, complex computers, scientists working on climate modeling struggle to represent the physical and chemical processes of clouds, including precipitation, strong cloud-scale motions and radiation. It has been especially difficult to realistically simulate the interaction between cloud systems and the global-scale circulation of the atmosphere.
The prototype model developed at Colorado State with its partner institutions allows scientists to take a two-dimensional model of a collection of clouds and apply the behavior of those clouds to each of the thousands of "grid columns" of a global atmospheric model. The cloud model provides statistics for a sample of the clouds in the grid column, just as an opinion poll collects statistics based on the views of a sample of the population, Randall said.
"The project will make it possible to produce more robust simulations of both next week’s weather and future climate change," said Randall, whose team has been working on the project for five years. "This new center will have broad impacts on both science and society because it will increase our understanding of climate processes and our ability to make reliable simulations of cloud processes as they relate to climate change."
Colorado State’s atmospheric science department has an international reputation for producing climate research and scientists, said Steven Rutledge, department head. Randall, for example, is also on the science team led by Professor Graeme Stephens that just sent CloudSat, the world’s most sensitive cloud-profiling radar, into space with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Stephens is also a member of Randall’s science team, which will use CloudSat data.
"We have some of the very, very best tools to study the atmosphere – radars and satellites and other cutting-edge instrumentation," Rutledge said. "We have models that simulate the detailed formation of tornadoes all the way through climate change on a global scale. The research done under MMAP will further expand our efforts in these areas even more and maintain our department as one of the very best atmospheric science programs in the world."
Randall is among the department’s top researchers. He received the 2005 Scholarship Impact Award, the university’s top annual honor for research accomplishments.
Scientists have struggled for decades to improve the way the clouds are represented in climate models, Randall said.
"People have been struggling with this problem for 40 years and a lot of good work has been done, but we need a breakthrough," Randall said. "The prototype model that we’ve already built looks quite promising."
About one-third of the $19 million budget is dedicated to education outreach and diversity, including training for K-12 science teachers and support for Colorado State’s popular Little Shop of Physics program. The program involves professors and students using everyday objects to show young people that science can be fun.
"We’ll look at questions like ‘Why are clouds white?’ and ‘Why do clouds stay up?’ – very interesting questions that have to do with the basic science of air, water, energy and light," said Brian Jones, director of the Little Shop of Physics. "We’ll develop instructional materials for schools related to the program that complement existing materials and relate to state standards. Our goal will be to help ensure that, when the kids who go through the school get to college, they have a strong training in basic sciences and a real interest in studying science, including climate science."
Colorado State plans to start construction next year on a 20,000-square-foot building at the Foothills Campus to host the new Science and Technology Center, including three faculty members, 17 researchers, 18 students and nine support staffers.
The project involves the participation of many other investigators and educators around the country and in Canada, Japan, England and Australia.
The Science and Technology Center is the third major NSF center at Colorado State’s College of Engineering. The Engineering Research Center for Extreme Ultraviolet Science and Technology is headquartered at Colorado State and is a joint collaboration among Colorado State, the University of Colorado-Boulder and the University of California-Berkeley. Colorado State is also one of four key partners in the Center for Collaborative Adaptive Sensing of the Atmosphere, which is an ERC based at the University of Massachusetts.