Radar net flattens Earth for weathermen

FRAMINGHAM (10/03/2003) - Web services, Linux and grid computing are among the technologies researchers are using to develop a system of predicting and improving warning times for weather emergencies such as tornadoes and flash floods.

Last week, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, launched a US$40 million research center that will build a nationwide network of radar dishes to collect atmospheric data. The radars would be linked by a grid-computing infrastructure that would let users pool and allocate geographically dispersed system resources as needed.

The Engineering Research Center for Collaborative Adaptive Sensing of the Atmosphere (CASA) says it hopes to overcome a shortcoming of existing weather forecasting and warning systems, which have difficulty monitoring conditions close to the ground because of the curvature of the Earth.

CASA plans to get around the curvature issue and obstructions such as mountains by setting up dense networks of short-range radars that are physically smaller than most existing meteorological radars, says UMass, which is a leader in the CASA project. The radars can be mounted on top of buildings or cell phone towers and supported by PC-sized computers - as opposed to today's high-power radars that often have 30-foot antennas and supercomputer accompaniments.

Over the next few years, a host of municipalities and agencies will install these radar systems. The first field test of CASA will take place in mid-2005 in a tornado-heavy area of Oklahoma, about 20 percent of the state. Ultimately, CASA plans to place sensors in every city across the country.

"There's computing everywhere," says Jim Kurose, a professor in the computer science department at UMass, of the project architecture. Individual radar sites have Linux-based gear for local storage and computational work, and larger back-end systems aggregate data from radar sites to run sophisticated meteorological analysis software, Kurose says. The network backbone uses existing infrastructure including Oklahoma's OneNet, a statewide network that provides data and video services to public sector entities such as government agencies, libraries, hospitals and schools.

The demand for real-time forecasting adds complexity to CASA's project. Researchers are designing the system to continually ingest data fed from sensors and use that data to steer the radars toward critical weather conditions, Kurose says. Determining which conditions - such as a hurricane in Puerto Rico or a flood in Houston - receive priority raises complex policy issues.

With lots of end users interested in weather data - including government agencies, emergency response teams and commercial businesses - there might be competing demands for CASA resources, says Daniel Bonelli, vice president of marketing in IBM Corp.'s Software Group. The research team is devising a system for automating the allocation of computing and storage resources on the fly, Bonelli says.

As a technology partner to CASA, IBM is providing some of the computing infrastructure for the project, including blade servers running Linux, WebSphere application server and integration software, DB2 database and content management software, and Rational application development tools.

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