FSL in Review 2002 - 2003

Cover/Title Page

Organizational Chart

Office of the Director

Office of Administration
and Research

Information and
Technology Services

Forecast Research

Demonstration Division

Systems Development

Aviation Division

Modernization Division

International Division


Acronyms and Terms

Figures Listing

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Nita Fullerton

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Will von Dauster
John Osborn

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FIR 2002 - 2003 O.D. MastHead
Dr. A.E. "Sandy" MacDonald, Director

Web Homepage: http://www.fsl.noaa.gov

Dr. Russell B. Chadwick, Chief Engineer, 303-497-6318
Ming Ge, Guest Researcher, 303-497-6021
Dr. Joseph H. Golden, Meteorologist, 303-497-4098
David Himes, Senior Software Engineer/SOS Team Leader, 303-497-5447
Dr. Jin-Luen (Jim) Lee, Meteorologist, 303-497-6097
Dr. Thomas W. Schlatter, Chief Scientist , 303-497-6938
Julie D. Singewald, Secretary Office Automation, 303-497-6818

(The above roster, current when document is published, includes
government, cooperative agreement, and commercial affiliate staff.)

Address: NOAA Forecast Systems Laboratory – Mail Code: FSL
David Skaggs Research Center
325 Broadway
Boulder, Colorado 80305-3328

Message from the Acting Director

Forecast Systems Laboratory Director Alexander E. MacDonald has been on assignment at NOAA Research Headquarters for five of the first seven months of 2003, and so the pleasant duty of highlighting some of FSL's recent accomplishments falls to me as Acting Director.

FSL strives for excellence in four major areas: 1) bringing new atmospheric observing systems to maturity, 2) developing and improving regional mesoscale models for detailed weather predictions, 3) investigating parallel computer architectures as a vehicle for handling the huge computational demands of environmental models, and 4) developing environmental information systems for a variety of customers, within NOAA and outside.

In the past year, FSL continued to gather atmospheric observations from disparate sources in the service of local forecasting and regional modeling. For example, the number of Cooperative Agency Profilers, most of them sampling the boundary layer, has grown to over 60. The number of ground-based GPS sites estimating total column water vapor now exceeds 200. More than 5,000 new surface mesonet observations have been added to the FSL hourly collection. After performing quality control checks, FSL forwards all these data to the National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP) for use in operational models.

FSL is developing plans for a global observing system with major in situ components that can settle the controversy about long-term tropospheric warming, monitor natural and anthropogenic atmospheric constituents, and sample the ocean depths. This system would meet requirements for climate monitoring and prediction and also provide much needed calibration of satellite observations in remote locations. The first phase of this program, called "Pacific Plus," would employ a combination of unpiloted aircraft, altitude-controlled balloons, and ocean buoys to sound the atmosphere and water across the length and breadth of the Pacific.

Gauging the contributions of various observing systems to forecast accuracy is an important activity. FSL recently completed the modeling and computing infrastructure for performing such impact tests. Because commercial airlines, which supply nearly 100,000 temperature and wind reports per day, are financially strapped, and the continuity of the NOAA Profiling Network is threatened, FSL conducted special impact tests, demonstrating that aircraft and profilers each contributes substantially to forecast accuracy and that these data are highly complementary.

Several FSL accomplishments in modeling are noteworthy. Three-dimensional variational analysis became operational in the 20-km version of the Rapid Update Cycle in May 2003. This opens the door to assimilation of many new sources of observations that were previously difficult to accommodate. A Developmental Test Center is being established in Boulder. FSL, NCAR, and NCEP will contribute staff and share computing resources. The initial focus of the Test Center will be on the development of the Weather Research and Forecasting Model, destined to become both an operational model and a research vehicle for the larger modeling community. The Federal Highway Administration supported a collaborative effort between FSL and NCAR to field test a model-based system for snow plow operators that helps them decide when to plow and what chemicals to spread on the road surface. This Maintenance and Decision Support System was successfully tested in Iowa in February and March 2003.

In November 2002, FSL accepted a major upgrade to its high-performance computing system,comprising 768 nodes with dual Intel Pentium processors rated at 2.2 Ghz. Also during that month, it was ranked #8 on the Top500 List of the World's Fastest Computers, and now serves more than two dozen external users representing most of the line offices within NOAA.

Capitalizing on major development work at FSL, the National Weather Service began installing two Linux-based workstations at each of its Weather Forecast Offices around the country in January 2002. Eventually these workstations will replace the Hewlett-Packard hardware which inaugurated the Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System (AWIPS) era. The highly robust Linux was developed in an open-source environment and runs on nonproprietary hardware.

FSL developed the FX-Net workstation as a low-cost alternative to AWIPS workstations. FX-Net can deliver fairly large datasets primarily because of wavelet compression techniques developed in-house. FX-Net has become the workstation of choice of the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, and at 11 Geographic Area Coordination Centers throughout the country. Meteorologists used FX-Net close to home last summer in fighting Colorado wildfires during an unprecedented drought.

NOAA Science On a Sphere (SOS)TM received major exposure during the past year. SOS is a powerful educational tool for projecting geophysical, other planetary, solar, or lunar data onto a sphere. The current prototypes are 5 – 6 feet in diameter. First field tested with hundreds of students and their parents at the Broomfield Heights Middle School last summer, SOS has since been an attraction at the annual meeting of the American Meteorological Society in Long Beach, California, the NOAA Science Center in Silver Spring, Maryland, and, most recently, at the National Cable and Telecommunication Association meeting in Chicago, Illinois.

For more information on the above items and many more, I hope you will browse through the following pages. We are eager to share with you our contributions toward NOAA research and technology transfer.
Tom Schlatter Signature
Thomas W. Schlatter
Acting Director - FSL

Figure 1 - AEM and Doug van de Kamp
Figure 1 - Tom Schlatter

Figure 1. (top) Sandy MacDonald and Doug van de Kamp viewing output from the NOAA Profiler system and (bottom) Tom Schlatter checking out the weather at the FSL observatory. (NOAA Photos by Will von Dauster, FSL.)

NOAA Science On a SphereTM Project

David Himes, Senior Software Engineer/Team Leader

Web Homepage: http://www.fsl.noaa.gov/sos


One of NOAA's goals is to establish an environmental literacy program for educating present and future generations about the changing Earth and its processes. Science On a SphereTM, a new concept by FSL Director Dr. Sandy MacDonald, is a NOAA program to develop a revolutionary system for educating the public on the holistic nature of Earth's ever-changing oceans, atmosphere, biology, and land. Science On a SphereTM presents NOAA's global science in a new and exciting way by providing an engaging three-dimensional representation of our planet as if the viewer were looking at the Earth from outer space. The system uses a bank of computers coupled with video projectors to display animated geophysical and atmospheric information onto the outside of a large, opaque sphere (Figure 2). People move freely around the suspended sphere to view the scientific images as a speaker provides an interpretation of the images and the processes being observed. Some of the early and most popular images include a day-to-night rotation of the Earth, using high-resolution topography for the daylight side, and DMSP (Defense Meteorological Satellite Program) night light data on the dark side of the planet; global infrared weather images compiled from a series of geostationary meteorological satellites; weather prediction model output; climate change simulations; 600 million years of plate tectonics; the Sun as seen by the GOES X-Ray Imager; and the surfaces of the Moon and Mars.

Figure 2 - SOS - DC
Figure 2 - SOS - Broomfield

Figure 2. Students at two different locations, Washington, D.C. (top)
and Broomfield, CO (bottom), learning about Science On a Sphere TM.
(NOAA Photos by Will von Dauster, FSL.)

Nearly any global data can be displayed on Science On a SphereTM, including the weather, climate, geology, images of solar system bodies, or any type of geographical information that covers a large portion of a planet's surface. NOAA's mission to understand and predict changes in the Earth's environment can derive special benefit from the ability to present its data with a geometry that corresponds to that chosen by nature. In many ways, Science On a SphereTM provides an ideal way to educate the public on many important issues, both environmental and economic, that face NOAA, the United States, and the entire world.


Development of Science On a SphereTM has proceeded in phases at FSL for the past two years. Phase 0 was a proof of concept that demonstrated the idea of using computer technology, video projectors, and a large white sphere to create the illusion of a planet rotating in space. Phase 1 built on and improved the underlying concept to create striking, animated images of the Earth's atmosphere, land, and oceans. Phase 2 development of Science On a SphereTM is proceeding and will produce a mature, robust visualization system that can be made commercially available for educational and scientific use across NOAA, K – 12 schools, museums, science centers, and other public venues. A patent application for Science On a SphereTM has been submitted on behalf of NOAA.

The initial Phase 0 prototype was developed in the summer and fall of 2001, using an Apple G4 with four video cards, low-end video projectors, and an acrylic sphere. The system had limitations in terms of resolution (400 x 400 pixel imagery) and a low video frame rate, along with deficiencies related to mapping and synchronization of the images on the sphere. However, even with these limitations, the visualizations and overall concept convinced other NOAA organizations to invest in the project. The Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR); National Weather Service (NWS); National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS); and National Polar Orbiter Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) provided resources to support the next development stage of Science On a SphereTM. NESDIS gave additional help and played an important role by providing a freestanding suspension structure for the sphere, significant support for dataset creation, and indispensable aid in planning and logistics for conferences and remote events.

The goals during Phase 1 development were to improve the system by 1) creating additional media sets to display on the sphere; 2) increasing the pixel resolution used by the display system; 3) improving the focus, convergence, and overall quality of the projected imagery; 4) creating a user interface to control the system; and 5) developing more portable and scalable construction techniques for the sphere itself. All of these goals were achieved to a large extent by December 2002.

Phase 1 development culminated in a series of presentations and remote events, starting with a week-long educational workshop at Broomfield Heights Middle School (near Boulder) in October 2002 to test the idea: "Can Science On a SphereTM be used as a teaching tool?" The system was set up in a science classroom at the school, and for one week, nearly 500 students (some future scientists, no doubt) were led through exercises in atmospheric science, geography, and other earth science disciplines. The reactions from the students during the teaching exercises were fascinating to observe. They voiced their surprise to see the Earth and other planets at this scale and were very responsive in the classroom exercises. Some students were so influenced by the presentations and lessons that they were still discussing science at lunchtime in the cafeteria, a rare event according to one teacher. Parents attending parent/teacher conferences saw the sphere in the evening as enthusiastic students showed them what they were learning in science class.

In December 2002, Science On a SphereTM was at the NOAA Science Center in Silver Spring, Maryland, for presentations to NOAA staff and management. Various NOAA groups participating in the program were excited with the prospect of displaying new NOAA data from their own group on the sphere. Science On a SphereTM was exhibited at the Annual Meeting of the American Meteorological Society in Long Beach, California, where FSL hosted nearly 2,000 participants from the general public and the scientific community during the week-long conference. Overall comments and audience reactions were very positive, with the more common response that this is a dramatic way of looking at the geographic and atmospheric processes of our planet and conveying that information to the viewer.

Most recently, Science On a SphereTM was shown at the Department of Commerce's Hoover Building in Washington, D.C., (Figure 3) as part of the national program, "Excellence in Science, Technology, and Mathematics Education Week."

Figure 3 - SOS - DC - Hoover
Figure 3 - SOS - DC - AEM

Figure 3. NOAA Administrator Vice Admiral Lautenbacher (top) presenting NOAA's Science On a SphereTM at the Herbert C. Hoover building in Washington, D.C., and (bottom) Sandy MacDonald leading a demonstration.
(NOAA Photos by Will von Dauster, FSL.)


The next development phase during 2003 will involve creating an "industry-ready" system that can be made available commercially through a technology transfer mechanism. Two versions of Science On a SphereTM will be created. The version suitable for use in schools will comprise a smaller sphere, lower-end computers, and less expensive display technology. The other version, a higher-end system, suitable for museums, conferences, and scientific institutions will have a corresponding increase in sophistication in terms of overall appearance, computing power, and projection technology. Additional features planned for implementation during Phase 2 development include:
  • Annotation – Provide the ability to draw markers and place text over data being displayed on the sphere.
  • Simplified System Architecture – Investigate and implement more compact computers and technology, along with a lighter and easier to assemble display structure, to facilitate setup and reduce the cost of transporting and assembling Science On a SphereTM for conferences, workshops, and schools.
  • Documentation – Create technical documentation and a user manual describing the operation and use of Science On a SphereTM.
  • Display Preparation Package – Develop and provide a software package to convert scientific data to an SOS-ready format. Provide documentation on SOS data format.
  • Real-Time Data Ingest – Provide for real-time data ingest for a limited set of NOAA satellite and model data products and develop an automatic way of distributing Science On a SphereTM ready images from a central facility to remote Science On a SphereTM sites.
  • Unattended Operational Mode – Build the capability for Science On a SphereTM to run in an unattended mode for public display, featuring automatic loading of data with synchronized audio narration.
  • Pole Rotation – Add the ability to display the Earth or other planets at arbitrary angles of rotation. This feature includes the ability to rotate the Earth so that the poles can be displayed anywhere on the sphere for easier viewing and data exploration.

The continued success of NOAA Science On a SphereTM is dependent on the support of NOAA and other government organizations, industry, and the private sector. Early and future development of the system is also supported by a very dedicated, capable team at FSL under the leadership of Sandy MacDonald.

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