Weather to be; the most colorful use of micros in environmental research is in the analysis of images from earth-orbiting spacecraft. Bertha B. Kogut.
When Grant Zehr, a physician in Bloomington, IL, wants to see the weather in Bloomington, CA, he displays real time weather satellite images of the continental U.S. using the Commodore Vic 20 in his workshop. When these images show severe storms in California, Robert Green and his colleagues at a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) research center in Colorado can analyze them in color on an IBM PC XT. And if the storms are especially severe, California communities will receive real time warnings of flash floods from a microcomputer-based flood alert system.
This scenario demonstrates the expanding role microcomputers are playing in environmental research and operations. This role was spotlighted recently at the International Conference on Interactive Information and Processing Systems for Meteorology, Oceanography, and Hydrology. The Conference, sponsored by the American Meteorological Society, brought environmental scientists together to discuss new developments in hardware and software for interactive data processing in their discipline. One theme running through many of the papers and hardware displays was that improvements in the computational power of microcomputers make it feasible to design inexpensive scientific data analysis systems based on off-the-shelf personal computers. Two important applications of these new capabilities are the interactive display and analysis of meteorological and geophysical images, and the management of environmental databases using microcomputers.
The most colorful use of micros in environmental research is in the analysis of images from earth-orbiting spacecraft. NASA and NOAA operate a small constellation of satellites which view the earth and provide regular data on weather patterns, severe storms, snow cover, and agricultural conditions. Finding the best way to use this imagery in operational weather forecasts and earth resources assessment is an important research topic, and microcomputers are new tools for quickly and inexpensively analyzing this remotely sensed data.
In a joint effort between the Space Science and Engineering Center at the University of Wisconsin and NOAA's National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Informations Service (NESDIS), a system based on a personal computer was developed to display and analyze satellite imagery. The VAS PC workstation is built around an IBM PC XT with enhanced color graphics hardware, and displays images of severe storms and other atmospheric processes seen by NOAA's GOES weather satellite. Color images of hurricanes and tornado producing thunderstorms are routinely generated by the system, which also loops through successive images to show the movement of the storms.
A similar system developed for the NESDIS Satellite Applications Laboratory (SAL) by Research and Data Systems, Inc. of Lanham, MD, displays and processes images from a sensor aboard NASA's Nimbus-7 satellite which penetrates clouds to provide all weather observations. Based on a DEC PDP 11/03, the SAL Image Manipulation and Processing System (IMPS) generates color maps of rainfall, snow cover, and lake ice which are normally obscured from spacecraft by clouds.
Commercial suppliers of weather information to the media, agriculture, and aviation also turn to microcomputers to provide a low-cost flexible method to receive and display current weather imagery. The satellite-based weather maps many Americans see on their evening news are frequently downloaded directly from the satellite to an Apple or IBM PC at the local TV station.
While some micros share the spotlight on the late night news, others toil at less glamorous, but equally important, environmental tasks. Since 1976 the California-Nevada River Forecast Center of the National Weather Service has employed a community focused system using off-the-shelf micros to warn of the largest weather-related killer in the United States: the flash flood. In the ALERT System (Automated Local Evaluation in Real Time) micros serve as base stations for a network of flood sensors which transmit to local communities river and stream conditions indicating the onset of flooding. Many local agencies also want to use the system to monitor fire hazard conditions, air pollution, water conservation, and high wind. Mobile ALERT units combining a TRS-80 Model 100 with a Bearcat radio scanner are being developed for emergency situations like wildfires and toxic chemical releases.
In Canada microcomputers are at both ends of a data collection and analysis system for that country's Atmospheric Environment Service. Data collection platforms with built-in microprocessors gather weather data from inaccessible sites and radio information to overhead satellites. On the other end, personal computers control the quality of incoming data and automate the nighttime long distance telephone dialing into meteorological databases.
Scientists dealing with man-made environmental problems also find that personal computers have enough speed, memory, and storage to meet many of their day to day needs. At the Radian Corporation in California, microcomputers use commercial spreadsheet and database software to model the dispersion of atmospheric pollutants and manage databases of meteorological and hazardous materials information.
The low cost and wide availability of personal computers make them particularly attractive to educators and hobbyists. Systems like the VAS PC workstation are used as teaching aids at Purdue University and the University of Oklahoma. And, as mentioned above, a very inexpensive system for displaying real time satellite imagery was developed by Grant Zehr, a computer and amateur radio hobbyist. This system, built around a Commodore Vic 20, collects automatic picture transmissions from NOAA's Tiros-N satellites and produces enhanced displays of the weather over the U.S.
The teaching potential of such computer systems has impressed educators like Fred Decker of the U.S. Department of Education. He notes that "We have to project systems like this into the classroom to let students see examples of the applications of physics and engineering to everyday problems."
It seems clear that while students, scientists, and computer hobbyists of the future may not be able to do anything about the weather, they will be able to interact with it much more personally.