June 1, 2008 Scientists created a way to combine weather data and geographic information systems software in a visual display for use in disaster response. They created a map with a variety of ways to layer and analyze the information. Individual managers can use the software to integrate data into their maps, bringing together information that would otherwise be scattered in many resources.
Most of us like to access the daily forecast so we know how to dress for work, school or travel. But for those who rely on the weather for their livelihoods, like emergency responders, researchers have developed a way to deliver updated and customized weather maps directly to their desktops.
Margot Kaye is a forestry expert and wildfire manager. On any given day, she needs to know wind speed and direction, precipitation and humidity. "We use that data to get a sense of how fire might behave given those weather conditions," Kaye of the the Pennsylvania State University in University Park, told Ivanhoe.
Now it's possible to take the information -- not just one or two, but several steps further -- by using geographic information systems or GIS and specialized mapping options developed by researchers at the Penn. State. "We have several maps or data sets and you can overlay them over each other," Bernd Haupt, a senior research associate at Pennsylvania State University's Earth and Environmental Systems Institute.
The GIS program allows users to take live streams of raw weather data from the national weather service and display the information on a map. Then this map can be customized, starting with satellite imagery from Google Earth. Users can layer up to seventeen different weather variables, including temperature, rainfall and wind direction and, in the case of wildfires, vertical column or surface level smoke, revealing a clearer picture of what's happening.
"It not only impacts the people who are living near the fire, but it also would impact where the firefighters would be or where they would want to locate themselves in the potential for the fire to spread," Maurie Kelly, a senior research assistant at Pennsylvania State University's Institutes for the Environment, told Ivanhoe.
New data can be added to the GIS map with the click of a button, making the latest information easily accessed on a desktop computer. Before the new customized GIS maps, Kaye would have no other options during a fire-than to search a handful of separate websites for the weather information she needed. "To be able to access all that data at once would really be useful -- make things much smoother," Kaye says. And save time, when lives could be on the line.
These maps can be used for tracking weather events as well.
MAKING INFORMATION USEFUL: Scientists developed a method for visualizing National Weather Service (NWS) data on maps. They use Geographic Information System (GIS) software, which can be customized to show information vital to firefighters, emergency planners, and farmers. They allow users to create layers of relevant information which layer atop a map to form a comprehensive picture of events. In disaster response situations, people must be mobile and have immediate access to information. The software uses programs called intelligent agents to enable mobile devices to function smoothly even if they cannot always access a wireless network. The agents monitor changes in the network and store and secure data in the event of a network disruption. Such programs can run on any type of mobile device, use any type of wireless network, and even establish their own ad hoc networks in the event that all other available networks fail, all of which can make a big difference during a disaster.
RUNNING WILD: Weather is a key factor in starting and spreading wildfires -- particularly drought, which dries out vegetation. Trees, underbrush, dry grassy fields, pine needles, dry leaves and twigs can all cause and spread forest fires because they burn faster, like kindling, than large logs or stumps. The more fuel that is present, the more intensely the fire will burn and the faster it will spread. When the fuel is very dry, such as after a long drought, it is consumed much faster, and the fire is much more difficult to contain. As the fire spreads, it generates heat that evaporates the moisture in potential fuel materials just beyond it, making it easier for those to ignite. Wind can also help spread a forest fire, and is the most unpredictable factor. Winds supply the fire with extra oxygen and push it across the land at a faster rate. Because the wind generally flows uphill, fires also travel faster up a slope than downhill.
The American Geophysical Union and the American Meteorological Society contributed to the information contained in the video portion of this report.