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Pushing the boundaries of research at NOAA in the sky
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Pushing the boundaries of research at NOAA in the sky

Part one of a two-part series on innovative and emerging projects supported by NOAA Oceanic and Atmospheric Research

by Caroline Mosley (NOAA Research Communications)

Taking risks is a necessary part of advancing science. NOAA recognizes the need to invest in these emerging research areas and recently supported several inventive and high-risk projects. In 2013, leadership at NOAA Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) recognized the importance of early-stage, high-risk research and sought project proposals that would be led by OAR and involve collaboration between at least two labs and/or programs.

Nearly two years later, four of these projects are providing great rewards for the initial investment, with many generating new partnerships and creating opportunities for longer term projects that help NOAA better research everything from the atmosphere and ocean, to the weather and climate.

"There is a need to support appropriate high-risk projects at NOAA so we can explore new approaches and technologies that have the potential to transform NOAA's products and services, our understanding of issues and the way NOAA conducts its work,"  said Steve Fine, Ph.D., OAR deputy assistant administrator for laboratories and cooperative institutes.

Two of these OAR-supported projects seek to improve NOAA’s ability to communicate accurate weather predictions to the public and better NOAA’s study of weather and climate by measuring unseen particles in the sky.

Streamlining Weather Forecasting

Forecasting a single storm is complex, requiring a great deal of manpower and collaboration. With technological advances, the forecasting process continues to become streamlined and provides more complete and accurate hazardous weather information to forecasters, community decision-makers and the public.

There has long been a need to modernize how severe weather information is communicated and effectively used. In 2013, OAR supported NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) to begin the initiative “Forecasting a Continuum of Environmental Threats,” or FACETs, a next-generation severe weather watch and warning framework.

“This support allowed for the development of FACETs by providing a specific budget for researchers to focus time and energy needed to begin the initial phase of the project,” said Lans Rothfusz, the deputy director at NSSL and project lead. 

FACETs seeks to create and deliver a warning systems that allows for a continuous, high-resolution stream of weather information based on grid points about two miles apart. These small grids would be updated rapidly (every two minutes) with new weather information, allowing end users to understand the uncertainty and probability for severe weather forecasts.

This framework has been tested at NOAA’s Hazardous Weather Testbed Experimental Warning program for the past two springs, an event that brings together forecasters, researchers and stakeholders to evaluate and test new weather research and products. 

These kinds of experiments are crucial, providing immediate guidance and feedback for new tools, like FACETs, by running real-time mock severe weather events. Rothfusz describes some exciting results from the event, as FACETs allows for more precision in forecasts and helps prevent false alarms that may occur if there were not a continuous stream of weather information.

Another unique approach of FACETS is to include social science aspects into the framework, which help improve the forecast messaging to make warnings and watches more clear to the decision-makers and the public. End users would then be able to access detailed information about hazardous weather risks in their region and make informed decisions about what actions to take. 

Measuring Unseen Particles in the Sky

The capabilities of three-dimensional printers are being used to further scientific endeavors. With support from OAR, NOAA scientists were able to purchase a 3D printer and use its capabilities to create the structure for a new instrument that is small and lightweight enough to deploy on Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) to measure fine atmospheric particles unseen by the human eye. These measurements are crucial to creating profiles of particles in the atmosphere, such as measuring plumes from wildfire and volcanoes, which are important to understanding air quality and climate.

The new sensor, called the Printed Optical Particle Spectrometer (POPS), uses the scattering of light to measure fine particles high up in the atmosphere. Ru Shan Gao, Ph.D., a research physicist at NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory Chemical Sciences Division (CSD) had been working on these spectrometers, but a lot of the design work for field use by weather balloons or UAS required trial-and-error, a time-consuming and expensive process.

At the same time, Tim Bates, Ph.D., a scientist at NOAA’s Joint Institute for the Study of Atmosphere and Ocean at the University of Washington, was also working on obtaining atmospheric measurements using the Manta Unmanned Aerial System (UAS). Like Gao, Bates was working on constructing an instrument package for unmanned vehicles. Support from the headquarters office prompted collaboration between the two NOAA labs, and once the project was funded, the researchers were able to use the capabilities of 3D printing to perfect the structure of the POPS instrument. 

“With new instruments come new opportunities,” said Gao. Both Gao and Bates were excited to get the project off the ground and explore different modifications of the instrument’s structure. The new instrument paired with a UAS allows NOAA to study air quality and climate issues in remote regions that may not otherwise be possible.

POPS has been used successfully on UAS, including a recent mission to Norway to measure the effects of black carbon, or soot, on climate. Another project is testing the instrumentation on the UAS to be used to investigate forest fire emissions, and Gao is working on building collaboration in China to investigate atmospheric pollution.

In addition to POPS, scientists were also able to develop an upward-looking radiometer, called the miniature Scanning Aerosol Sun Photometer (miniSASP), to place on UAS. This instrument measures how atmospheric particles absorb and scatter sunlight, a critical component of understanding the role of aerosols in climate change.

The project reaped not just high scientific rewards, but also helped scientists develop a marketable technology. The investment has resulted POPS and other NOAA technology being commercialized for the public and private sectors.




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Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) - or "NOAA Research" - provides the research foundation for understanding the complex systems that support our planet. Working in partnership with other organizational units of the NOAA, a bureau of the Department of Commerce, NOAA Research enables better forecasts, earlier warnings for natural disasters, and a greater understanding of the Earth. Our role is to provide unbiased science to better manage the environment, nationally, and globally.


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