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CASA Grant Promises to Save Lives and Property

The National Science Foundation (NSF), National Weather Service, and the City of Fort Worth have given the Engineering Research Center for Collaborative Adaptive Sensing of the Atmosphere (CASA), centered at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, a two-year, $1.34-million grant designed to accelerate the application of CASA’s revolutionary weather-tracking radar system, now being tested in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The CASA radars provide high-resolution, near-surface views of hazardous weather events such as tornadoes, thunderstorms, and flooding and allow emergency managers to broadcast faster, more accurate, more targeted storm warnings and forecasts to the public.

CASA’s radars promise to have a major impact on weather-related hazards, including loss of life, damage to property, and severe economic disruption due to tornadoes, ice storms, and flash flooding. Extreme weather in 2011 resulted in at least 922 deaths and more than $70 billion in total economic losses across the U.S.

The NSF grant, part of its Accelerating Innovation Research program, will support the establishment of an innovation ecosystem: a multi-partner collaboration which will act as a national model for public-private cooperation while deploying CASA radars in cities that experience severe weather hazards.

“The idea of the innovation ecosystem is to use the Dallas-Fort Worth test bed as a platform for research and getting the technology out,” says Brenda Philips, CASA’s deputy director and the principal investigator for the NSF project. “We are looking to develop public-private partnerships to accelerate the translation of CASA’s warning system and related technologies into operation throughout the country.”

How can cities benefit from the CASA technology? For the past nine years, CASA has been dedicated to revolutionizing the nation’s ability to observe, understand, predict, and respond to hazardous weather events. The center has pursued an innovative, low-cost, densely networked, X-Band, radar-sensing system to overcome the resolution and coverage limitations of the current NEXRAD National Weather Service network. The short-range and close spacing of CASA radars give them the ability to scan low to the ground with very high spatial resolution.

Such low-altitude scanning allows for CASA radars to track tornadoes, thunderstorms, and other severe weather at ground zero, where it happens, thus providing earlier, more accurate warnings than current NEXRAD technology allows.

The innovation ecosystem will focus on a few key initiatives. The first is a flashflood forecasting system for the Fort Worth area, done in collaboration with the Storm Water Division of the Fort Worth Transportation and Public Works Department. In the U.S., flooding is the second leading cause of weather-related fatalities, with an average of 92 deaths each year. Flooding causes an average of about $7.65 billion in damages every year in the U.S.

With those flashflood risks in mind, CASA will work with Fort Worth to create a cost-effective approach for boosting lead times for broadcasting flashflood warnings in the city. Fort Worth is currently installing its own sophisticated network of gauges for measuring flashfloods, and now it can also take advantage of the CASA radar network, which is equivalent to having rainfall gauges every 800 feet. “We’re working to incorporate CASA data into Fort Worth’s new flashflood warning system,” says Philips. CASA collaborators at Colorado State University will lead the effort to develop radar-derived rainfall estimates required to improve accuracy of flood forecasts.

A related aspect of the innovation ecosystem is working with the University of Oklahoma’s Center for Analysis and Prediction of Storms to adapt several analysis and assimilation tools to the Dallas-Fort Worth test bed and forecast where potentially deadly thunderstorms originate, literally “cutting them off at the pass” by warning people in their path.

Another significant goal is to create a marketable, lifesaving product from CASA’s meteorological command and control software, which is basically the brain of the CASA system. Philips and her collaborators will also be studying the economic value of CASA data and applying it to how jobs and taxes can be generated from them. In addition, CASA will carry out several educational components, including student participation in research projects and in student venture teams, which will be part of coursework at the University of North Texas.

“There are three main things we’re trying to do in the test bed,” Philips sums up. “First is to demonstrate the value of CASA radars and other sensors in an urban environment. Second is to develop new private-public partnership models for deploying and operating sensors. And third is to be a platform for future research in complex urban environments.”

The Dallas-Fort Worth test bed will eventually be comprised of eight CASA-style radars and soon expand to include a set of wideband, high-dynamic-range barometers built by Paroscientific, Inc. for sensing both nearby and distant infrasound signals. CASA envisions that the multi-sensor test bed will then be extended to include wind profilers, Doppler lidars, supplementary radars, and other sensors. Ultimately, the innovation ecosystem is expected to serve as a prototype for a national-scale “network-of-networks,” which enables a multitude of users and sensor providers to exchange observational data across a common infrastructure.

Collaborators include UMass Amherst, Colorado State University, University of Oklahoma, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs,University of Texas-Arlington, Universityof North Texas, and AECOM Technical Services. Partnership investments include $356,000 from the City of Fort Worth, $275,000 from the National Weather Service, $75,000 from Ridgeline Instruments, and $60,000 from the North Central Texas Council of Governments. CASA is also funded by the Jerome M. Paros Fund for Measurement and Environmental Sciences Research at UMass Amherst. (January 2013)