New Severe Storm Warning Tools on the Horizon

UMass Amherst researchers are leading the development of new apps and tools
Because the areas covered by the small, ground-level CASA radars overlap, they can conduct “smart” scans focused on areas of greatest concern and give a precise location. The CASA system also “looks into” a storm to detect such details as wind shear, hail, debris fields and raindrop size.

AMHERST, Mass. – A mobile weather app that would allow officials to send targeted, neighborhood-level warnings of approaching severe weather, something that might have helped residents of Hadley and Easthampton this week, is in the early stages of development now in the Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) area, led by researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Brenda Philips, an economist and co-director of the Collaborative Sensing of the Atmosphere (CASA) center at UMass Amherst, has a four-year, $2.48 million National Science Foundation grant to study how the mobile devices in our pockets, bags and backpacks can be enlisted as part of the next generation of weather warning systems in the coming decade.

“With mobile phone ownership ballooning to an estimated 85 percent of American adults in recent years, it makes sense to use the opportunity,” she says. “People want to know precisely if severe winds or hail is headed towards their homes, workplaces or schools. It’s not enough to know that their county is under a threat. Smart phones and tablets can deliver this information in a way that is relevant to an individual user. ” 

However, being able to issue neighborhood-level severe weather or flood alerts is difficult with the current, 30-year-old weather radar system in place nationally, Philips stresses. To identify the type of threat and pinpoint its location with such accuracy, an entirely new system of ground-level, networked radars like the CASA system is needed.

Over the past year, CASA, with industrial and university partners, installed such a system of five radar units this year in the DFW area, and it is now delivering an entirely new kind of weather information to forecasters there. Each the size of a microwave oven plus a 36-inch dish, the five X-band radars are deployed on rooftops and towers.

When forecasters predict the chance of approaching severe weather, the CASA system swings into action. Because the areas covered by each of these smaller, near-ground CASA radars overlap, they can conduct “smart” scans focused on areas of greatest concern and give a precise location. The CASA system also “looks into” a storm to detect such details as wind shear, hail, debris fields and raindrop size, providing information five to 10 times more detailed than current radars, according to CASA team member V. Chandrasekar at Colorado State University.

CASA data also come more often. While the current national system sweeps every five minutes, CASA radars in the DFW testbed sweep and transmit data once per minute, a critical difference in life-threatening situations.

For developing the mobile device app to bring the capability of localized warnings to individuals and neighborhoods, the CASA team is now holding focus groups to learn what sort of information people want to receive and how.

Next spring, with the grant from NSF’s Hazard Science, Engineering and Education for Sustainability (SEES) program, Philips and colleagues at the University of Delaware will recruit hundreds of volunteers in the DFW area for study of an app on their mobile devices. It will offer participants real-time, location-specific severe weather and flood warnings, plus timing and other information to help them respond.

As she explains, “Right now, you must identify yourself as being at risk from severe weather by listening to radio or television. Some apps will notify you, but you subscribe by zip code, or county, which can be a very large area. With the new CASA array now up and running in the DFW metroplex, we’re piloting a system that can deliver hyper-local, user-customized warnings.” 

A key part of the research is testing new kinds of communications infrastructure, optimized for mobile devices, where people can customize warnings. CASA co-director Michael Zink says, “In our approach, warnings can be sent to users based on their preference settings. For example, a user can specify that she wants to get warnings not only for herself but also for a location of a family member or friend. Based on localization information, a warning will only be given if the family member is actually at the location during the duration of the warning.”

 Philips adds, “Once we have people using it, we’ll have a rich source of information on how they use it, where they move when they receive a warning, how they respond at different times of the day, and the type of information that helps people to respond. In that way, we can make a concrete link between weather technology and public response to improve our warning process.”

In Texas, CASA radars are located at the University of Texas at Arlington, in the Town of Addison, City of Cleburne, City of Midlothian and at the University of North Texas, Denton. Behind the scenes, the CASA team led by UMass Amherst with partners to optimize forecasting infrastructure and factors such as Internet and computing requirements.

CASA was developed by the National Science Foundation’s Engineering Research Center program and at UMass Amherst by the Jerome M. Paros Fund for Measurement and Environmental Sciences Research. Raytheon, EWR Weather Radar, Ridgeline Instruments and the National Weather Service are also partners. Its developers hope to see the system nationally deployed over the next decade in major metropolitan areas across the country.