News Archive

Oklahoma Weather Drone Use Holds Promise For Earlier Tornado Warnings

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New research here in Oklahoma is designed to give people more of a heads-up before severe weather strikes, making storm season safer. Part of the work is happening at the University of Oklahoma. News On 6 - Tulsa, meteorologist Alan Crone went to the place in Norman that issues weather watches for every state but Alaska and Hawaii.

  Moore, 2013: The official warning was 16 minutes before the tornado hit Newcastle
  Broken Arrow, 2013: A two-minute advance warning of a small, but damaging tornado.
  Joplin, 2011: Sirens first sounded 24 minutes before the tornado that killed 161 people
  Quapaw, 2014: No official advance tornado warning - only a thunderstorm warning 12 minutes before touchdown.

What if a drone - or unmanned aerial vehicle as the forecasters prefer to call them - what if a UAV could mean much earlier warnings or warnings where there are now none?

OU meteorology professor Phillip Chilson and researchers at the National Weather Center are using hobbyist-style remote airplanes. The airplanes are about 2-pounds and 2-feet long with speeds in excess of 100 mph and decked out with hi-tech sensors.

“This is groundbreaking, this is a game changer,” Professor Chilson said. “When you have these different technologies that come around once in a while that really shake up the whole nature of the type of research we’re doing.”

They’re not the quadcopter drones like the one that crash-landed on the White House lawn, but close.

“It’s very light; it’s surprisingly light,” said News On 6 WARN Team meteorologist Alan Crone.

“How often can you say that you go out and play with toys as part of your research and do something meaningful for science?” Chilson said.

Right now, when making forecasts, NWS meteorologists use radar, satellites and balloons to check conditions in the upper and middle atmosphere. Conditions at the surface where we live are observed by instruments and people.

But there is a small gap in the lower atmosphere where a UAV could make a big difference.

“It allows you to get to areas that are inaccessible,” said OU Professor of Meteorology Phillip Chilson.

Some experts predict that ability could increase tornado warnings from 20 to 60 minutes.

The problem now is when conditions are ripe for storms, forecasters don’t know exactly where or when one will trigger a tornado…

“I think of it as being a whole bed of tightly coiled springs just waiting for something to happen,” Chilton said. “What triggers that spring to release its energy - fly up in the atmosphere - to trigger the other springs around it? That’s the part that’s difficult.”

But he believes UAVs will give a better understanding of what’s really happening leading to quicker calls on when and where a storm may turn violent.

While there’s real excitement in the possibilities of the research, what will it look like in the future when it comes to keeping you and your family safe?

There’s debate, even inside Norman’s National Weather Center.

“These are experiments that have yet to be done, to my knowledge,” said Dr. Greg Carbin, meteorologist at the National Storm Prediction Center.

“And until they are, you can’t make definitive statements that they’ll drastically change the state of forecasting.”

The hold-up to learning more is the FAA, which is nearly grounding research efforts while it studies how manned and unmanned aircraft can exist in harmony in the nation’s airspace.

But dreamer and realist agree, any new tool that could help save lives is welcome.

“You know, it’ll be another piece of the puzzle,” Carbin said. “We might be able to fit some puzzle pieces together and better predict what’s going to happen.”

“It will improve forecasts, increase lead times and increase the general safety of the public,” said Dr. Phillip Chilson, OU professor of meteorology.

“There’s not a shadow of a doubt in my mind that if we have the capability to fly these types of platforms and make measurements of the lower atmosphere, that it will improve forecasts, increase lead times and increase the general safety of the public.”

Just Sunday, the FAA issued its proposed rules for the use of drones by businesses.

See An Overview Of The Proposed FAA Rules For Drones

The OU researchers tell us it’s a good first step as they wait to see how the FAA will regulate their use of UAVs.

OU, Oklahoma State University and two other universities are submitting a joint weather UAV plan to the National Science Foundation this Friday.


OU Alum to be featured on The Weather Channel

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Make sure to set your DVRs for The Weather Channel this Thursday, February 19th, for 8:00 AM – 9:00 AM – sometime during that hour they’ll be presenting a segment to recognize Black History Month that profiles Dr. Ashton Robinson Cook, the first African-American male to earn a PhD from OU’s School of Meteorology.  Dr. Robinson Cook now works for NOAA’s National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center.  He is one of the few African-American PhDs in the country to study tornadoes.  The segment will then air periodically throughout the day.  Congratulations, Dr. Robinson Cook!


Research in Action

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Dr. Cameron Homeyer, Assistant Professor in the School of Meteorology, was second author of a ground-breaking study in Geophysical Research Letters that showed large thunderstorms over the Great Plains transport significant amounts of ozone from the stratosphere to the troposphere, the lowest part of the atmosphere.  The work was featured recently in UCAR’s AtmosNews as an important paper: http://www2.ucar.edu/atmosnews/just-published/13693/not-just-rain-thunderstorms-also-pour-down-ozone.  The finding is significant as ozone is an important greenhouse gas as well as a pollutant that affects human health and the environment, yet climate models typically do not include transport associated with these thunderstorms. 


Undergraduate Leads National Weather Center Team at AMS - Awarded Best Student Poster

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The award-winning poster was presented at the 5th Symposium on Advances on Modeling and Analysis Using Python at the American Meteorological Society’s Annual Meeting. The team was composed of Kelton Halbert and Greg Blumberg both of the School of Meteorology and Patrick Marsh of NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center (SPC). Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this award is that Kelton is a sophomore, while most of the other posters were presented by MS and PhD students.  The poster was entitled SHARpy: Fueling the Python Cult and described a comprehensive, cross-platform upper air sounding analysis package developed from a Python-based rewrite of the Storm Prediction Center Skew-T and Hodograph Analysis and Research Program (SHARP). Kelton volunteers for the Oklahoma Weather Laboratory and works supporting research within the Antarctic and Arctic Research Group (AAARG).


Graduate student Phillip Stepanian named Marshall Scholar

I am pleased to say that one of our PhD students in the School, Phillip Stepanian, was awarded and accepted a Marshall post-graduate Fellowship. The support from the Fellowship will allow Phillip to conduct biological radar research in the United Kingdom after completing his doctoral studies. Marshall Fellowships are prestigious and post-doctoral Fellowships are particularly competitive as they cut across all disciplines and awards are typically limited to one award per year for post-doctoral researchers across the US.  I looked over the award winners of the past 15 years and Phillip appears to be the first atmospheric scientist to be awarded this honor in that time frame.

The text below describes the criteria….

“In appointing Fellows, the selectors will look for distinction of intellect and character as evidenced both by their scholastic attainments and by their other activities and achievements. Candidates, who will be expected to pursue high level research during their Fellowship, should demonstrate an outward-looking disposition, good communications skills and the potential to promote British-American understanding. Preference will be given to candidates who combine high academic ability with the capacity to play an active part in the life of the United Kingdom university or research institute to which they go, and to those who display a potential to make a significant contribution to their own society.”

Please join me in congratulating Phillip. We are honored to have him as a student here in our School.    Dr. David B. Parsons, Director, School of Meteorology


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