Next-Generation, $40 Million Atmospheric Sensing Research Center Announced by UMass Amherst

AMHERST, Mass – Revolutionary sensing technology that will enable earlier and more accurate forecasts and warnings of weather emergencies will be at the heart of a new $40 million research center announced today at UMass Amherst. Funded in part by the National Science Foundation, the Engineering Research Center for Collaborative Adaptive Sensing of the Atmosphere (CASA) is expected to increase the warning time for tornadoes, flash floods, and other severe weather disturbances, and provide forecasts having far greater accuracy and timeliness.

UMass Amherst will lead a multidisciplinary team that includes the University of Oklahoma; Colorado State University; and the University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez. CASA’s industry partners include Raytheon, IBM, M/A-COM, Vaisala, Vieux and Associates, Telephonics, and The Weather Channel. Government partners include NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory, the National Weather Service and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

"This new Engineering Research Center is another example of how UMass Amherst’s academic and scientific expertise has a profound, positive impact on our society," said John V. Lombardi, UMass Amherst chancellor. "As a result, this center has the ability to save millions of dollars and protect many lives by identifying severe weather systems much sooner than any system currently in use."

Today’s forecasting and warning systems utilize data from high-power, long-range radars that have limited ability to observe the lower part of the atmosphere because of Earth’s curvature. This means, for example, that today’s sensors cannot detect the full vertical rotation of most tornadoes, thus leading to high false alarm rates for warnings.

CASA can overcome the blockage effects of Earth’s curvature and obstructions such as mountains and buildings by arranging low-cost, dense networks of radars that operate at short range. Furthermore, the radars will communicate with one another and adjust their sensing strategies in direct response to the evolving weather and changing user needs – a dramatic change from current technology. A new generation of meteorological software will use this radar data to support organizations that need weather data for decision making: government, emergency managers, and private industry.

The radars being developed by CASA are just three-feet by three-feet with electronics that are about the size of a personal computer, in contrast to today’s high-power radars which have 30 foot antennas and are three stories high. These new radars can also be placed on existing cellular towers.

"CASA will catch tornadoes and thunderstorms that can’t be detected today," said David McLaughlin, director of CASA and Armstrong Professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering. "We expect this system to reduce the financial impact of weather-related transportation delays. Moreover, these new sensor systems will be used for more than severe weather detection – for example, they could track low-level winds that transport pollutants throughout the atmosphere as well as heavy rainfall that produces floods – today the leading killer among weather-related events."

UMass and its partners will operate CASA aided by $40 million in funding over a five year period. This funding includes a $17 million grant from the NSF, the independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering, $5 million from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, contributions from academic partners, plus nearly $6 million from corporations and in-kind donations. The team includes engineers and computer scientists from UMass as well as engineers, meteorologists, atmospheric scientists, and sociologists from the academic partner institutions. "This is an essential partnership. We’re tackling a problem that just can’t be solved without this essential mix of multidisciplinary collaborators" said McLaughlin.

The first field test of CASA will be in mid-2005 in Oklahoma and will cover roughly 20 percent of the state - a region that experiences approximately 22 tornadoes per year. The second test will be in Houston, where CASA will deploy a system to predict floods more accurately. A third test, in Puerto Rico, will improve monitoring of hurricanes as they approach land.

"CASA’s technology will contribute to our integrated observing system strategy for the nation," commented Jack Hayes, director of the NOAA National Weather Service Office of Science and Technology.

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 ERCs advance knowledge and develop new technologies to transform U.S. industry. The center fosters collaboration among researchers from many disciplines and provides an education and research environment that prepares a new generation of engineering leaders," said Dr. John Brighton, NSF Assistant Director for Engineering.

All engineering research centers must also 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.