NOAA center puts center of weather research at students' fingertips in College Park

New forecasting center expected to draw, develop top talent

October 24, 2012|By Scott Dance, The Baltimore Sun

Colleen Wilson of Ellicott City became the first person to enroll in the University of Maryland, College Park's new meteorology degree program a year ago. Now she's embarking on research with some of the nation's top weather watchers.

The program and the opportunity for Wilson came about because the new home for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Center for Weather and Climate Prediction is a couple of miles down the road from the university's main campus. About 800 NOAA workers moved from an aged facility in Camp Springs to a sparkling metal-and-glass building at the university's budding research park. The move prompted the university to launch the undergraduate program.

"I definitely see it as a big opportunity," said Wilson, a 19-year-old sophomore who recently toured the weather center ahead of a research project there on the damaging derecho that struck the region June 29. "It's amazing because I got to see all the diversity of what I could do in the field."

Open two months, the center is spurring new partnerships between NOAA and university researchers. It's also raising morale among government workers striving to perform cutting-edge weather and climate observations and predictions, while competing with the private sector for young and talented workers.

The federal government broke ground on the $100 million, 268,000-square-foot facility in 2006, though it was in planning far before that. Now that the center is complete, NOAA scientists said they are hopeful it will help attract the next generation of climate and weather researchers from the College Park campus and beyond.

The center is home to key climate and weather forecasting agencies, including those responsible for long-range climate outlooks, study of precipitation patterns and analysis of weather satellite images. Eventually, air-quality testing equipment will sit atop the building's green roof, while floors below scientists are already monitoring via satellite the spread of volcanic ash or forest fire smoke.

In a command center, meteorologists scan a half-dozen computer monitors apiece, watching anything from the movement of frontal systems to ocean temperatures and offshore oil spills. In a nearby room lined with chairs facing three large flat-screen TVs, meteorologists provide daily "map updates," outlining the weather patterns expected across the country that day.

On a practical level, the building was designed with dozens of conference rooms and an open floor plan to encourage collaboration among scientists across NOAA. In the Camp Springs facility, they were more segmented by specialty, officials said.

"People are generally just happy to be here," said Wallace Hogsett, science and operations officer for the National Weather Service's development and training branch.

Hogsett, a University of Maryland alumnus, left a job in Miami at the National Hurricane Center to return to College Park in part because of the new facility and the top-notch scientists it could draw.

"Morale is high," Hogsett said.

While there isn't yet a formal program linking University of Maryland students with NOAA researchers, university officials say they are pleased with the collaboration they have seen already.

Along with Wilson's research on the derecho and microbursts, other students are working with NOAA researchers on a project using lasers to measure the Arctic ice pack and another building a better instrument to measure certain air pollutants, said Jeffrey Stehr, associate director of the undergraduate and masters programs in the atmospheric and oceanic science department.

Officials hope to duplicate successes in university, government and private-sector collaboration, such as between the university and the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in nearby Greenbelt and between the University of Oklahoma, NOAA's Storm Prediction Center and companies that have clustered around them in Norman, Okla., said Antonio Busalacchi, director of the university's Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center.

"The students are being exposed to cutting-edge research problems," Busalacchi said. "At the same time, training students to work on these challenging problems improves their job prospects.

"This is kind of a new era for NOAA in terms of working with students."

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