By Juan Miguel Pedraza
Dial 511 on your cell phone — and that call accesses technology invented at UND by Leon Osborne and a team of researchers and students at the Regional Weather Information Center (RWIC).
Osborne, Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Sciences and RWIC director, has pioneered innovative weather research and forecasting technology for decades.
“It’s essentially a geographic science,” he explained. “You want to know what the weather is like, what road conditions are like, at a very specific time and place.”
Osborne is known nationwide for his pioneering work in surface weather modeling, forecasting, and reporting. UND is the only university in the world that teaches surface transportation weather as part of the curriculum within the atmospheric sciences degree program.
The discipline uses atmospheric conditions to predict how weather will affect roads and other ground conditions, such as railroad beds.
“You need the full range of geospatial technologies to accomplish that goal,” said Osborne, who in 1993 built a GIS and Remote Sensing Lab as part of RWIC, long before GIS became such a scientific commonplace.
“When we formed the lab, just three groups knew how to spell GIS: engineering, geosciences (geography and geology), and us,” he said. “The purpose of this facility is largely to integrate geospatial technologies into atmospheric sciences, which essentially are geospatially oriented. Everybody wants to know what the weather is, and they’re usually interested in it with respect to a place.”
Typically, with a GIS, one assembles various data sets — for example, property boundaries, taxable property values, elevation, population density, and soil type — to produce a map with several layers. In a weather application, the GIS is composed of homogenous information, such as temperature and humidity in a particular region or area.
“We learned early on that farmers, who were among our earliest users, wanted lots of other data besides weather — such as soil data, yield information, surface cover — and see it all together,” said Osborne. “At that time, we didn’t have the resources to do all of that, mostly because the technology was not that sophisticated and because most of the available software was proprietary. We didn’t want to have to pay $200,000 or more for software with a relatively limited usefulness.
So,” he continued, “we started exploring how to use geospatial technologies to bring other things together into our weather. Of course, data produced by weather satellites — another key geospatial technology — have been a mainstay since the early 1960s. The sensors have grown increasingly sophisticated. You can cover more surface area more often and in much greater detail.”
Radar is another core technology in the geospatial family. It’s remote sensing, because you’re detecting something from afar, and you’re correlating that information with a specific location, Osborne explains.
“Here at UND, we’ve added a lot to your basic weather, and opened up tremendous new doors to how weather information is being used,” Osborne said. “Now, the National Weather Service plans to deliver severe thunderstorm information so that you can plot it into your GIS package. Also, with lots of open architecture in computing, we have, for example, a student who’s folding together a GIS package into an improved weather forecasting system.”
“The fact is, we’ve fully incorporated GIS tools within our research,” Osborne said. “For example, to develop fire weather indices and early responder info. And what’s really cool is that we’re only one of a handful of universities developing these kinds of weather-related geospatial applications.”
"We've opened up tremendous NEW DOORS
to how weather information
is being used."