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UAlbany, IBM partnering to explore climate and weather impacts

The inside of the xCITE (ExTREME Collaboration, Innovation and Technology) laboratory is a state-of-the-art data and visual analytics laboratory operated and managed by the University at Albany’s Atmospheric Sciences Research Center.
Patrick Dodson
The xCITE (ExTREME Collaboration, Innovation and Technology) laboratory is a state-of-the-art data and visual analytics laboratory operated and managed by the University at Albany’s Atmospheric Sciences Research Center.

The University at Albany is expanding a partnership with IBM to explore climate and weather impacts. Through the school’s Atmospheric Sciences Research Center, the entities will focus on harmful algal bloom detection and prediction, winter road weather conditions and wind power generation. WAMC’s Jim Levulis spoke with Lloyd Treinish, the chief scientist at IBM Research for Climate and Weather, and Chris Thorncroft, director of UAlbany’s Atmospheric Sciences Research Center, about the effort.

Thorncroft: So ASRC has a long standing interaction with IBM, and we study problems of mutual interest, we work on extreme weather, as well as climate change, weather impacts, renewable energy, just to name a few. And so we have a number of scientists that are interested in working on these problems together with IBM. We also have with the New York State Mesonet that is run out of University of Albany. And this is an amazing resource that we want to exploit together for the benefit of various applications in the state. Just quickly, the New York State Mesonet is a network of weather stations across the state. 126 weather stations, every county has at least one, measuring everything you care about in terms of weather, temperature, wind, humidity, snowfall, snow depth, you name it, we measure it in the New York State Mesonet. And there are a number of other more sophisticated measurements which we might want to get into later that measures and we want to work with I've Lloyd and his team that IBM to try and exploit that data both for situational awareness, but also in numerical weather prediction activities.

Levulis: And as mentioned, Lloyd Treinish is the chief scientist at IBM Research for Climate and Weather. Lloyd, what about IBM's role in this project? How is it that this company is using you know, things like artificial intelligence and machine learning when it comes to weather prediction forecasting?

Treinish: Well, IBM and IBM Research has had a long history related to meteorology, and especially for business applications. So looking at the problems that for weather sensitive decision making from airlines to surface transportation, to electric utilities, water utilities, insurance, and the list sort of goes on and on. And it's an aspect from an IBM perspective is that we are also one of the largest commercial providers of weather information. Current weather conditions and, and forecasts. And this really accelerated when we acquired The Weather Company a number of years ago. You probably see some of our content from a commercial forecasting perspective on your smartphone, or on television stations in the Albany area, for example. But as you know, weather is a challenging phenomenon to predict at the right level of fidelity for decision making. So we have ongoing research activities on improvement in, in the weather models that drive these forecasts, and data and techniques to work with the data are critical to that improvement. And so the partnership with Albany is sort of at the heart of trying to increase the quality of the weather forecasts and enable more reliable decisions, whether that's by individuals or by governments, or by businesses. So by working together with Chris and his team, you know, we will be able to evaluate our weather models to improve them and lead to higher quality information for everyone's benefit.

Levulis: And I understand that one of the areas of focus for this partnership will be a harmful algal bloom detection and prediction in lakes and reservoirs. I was wondering if you could detail for me, how for instance, would this partnership work in that case? How would the folks at UAlbany work with the folks at IBM to predict, you know, where these harmful algal blooms would form?

Treinish: This activity connects to a project that IBM has with Rensselaer Polytechnic and the Lake George Association, which we call the Jefferson Project. And our initial testbed is in the Lake George watershed. And so this work is focused on being able to very precisely monitor and predict water quality conditions. And the Lake George watershed is ideal for that, given how pristine it is, in terms of trying to understand the different mechanisms that lead to changes in water quality, including the formation of algal blooms. So there's ongoing research to do that. And we see strong connections to the weather, you know, as potential drivers for the conditions when blooms can form, but also, you know, how they might become larger events that would lead to, you know, toxic conditions. And so an important element of this is having highly detailed weather data. Now, in the Lake George watershed, we've deployed weather and other environmental sensors. But we also need to understand kind of, from a situational awareness perspective, what are the weather conditions that feed into the watershed. And so as we expand to other watersheds in New York State, you know, to understand these conditions, this is where the Mesonet becomes critical, because it has, as Chris had outlined, has a comprehensive set of weather observations for the entire state, and therefore relevant to any lake watershed that we need to understand more of how they're being stressed from a water quality perspective, and the potential for formation of algal blooms.

Thorncroft: And if I can add, the Mesonet sites are making measurements of wind in particular, which is relevant to this issue, every five minutes, those are every five minutes broadcast here, and we can use that for situational awareness. But also, we will be interested in working with IBM more closely on how to get that data into numerical weather prediction models. So not only can we get the situational awareness, but we can actually have some sort of early warning system ideally.

Treinish: Yes, and you know, and that's one of the goals is not only once we better understand, you know, how the blooms form, and that can lead to the capability to predict potential conditions. And then that becomes important, you know, to warn the public for periods of time when the water may not be safe or for when water is used for commercial purposes, agriculture or drinking for that matter.

Levulis: I also understand that the Atmospheric Sciences Research Center at UAlbany has been working on a US Department of Energy Project to deploy a buoy system to improve models for offshore wind generation. Lloyd, you mentioned the Jefferson Project, working with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute on Lake George. This buoy system, field testing was done on Lake George and Oneida Lake and Seneca Lake. Where does that project stand and what are the next steps for that?

Thorncoft: So these are this is, this has been led by a couple of scientists and researchers at the Atmospheric Sciences Research Center. And it's motivated by the fact that, you know, given the interest in offshore wind, we need more information about the weather conditions where those turbines will be deployed, both in terms of where those turbines should be placed, but also ultimately down the road, how we actually run them. And so one of the important things that we need to do more of is measure the atmosphere in those regions, where we plan to deploy turbines and that's a challenge. And this was a DOE supported effort, as you say, was tested in the lake. So we have a Lidar [Light Detection and Ranging] system, which is on a buoy and moves up and down when we have waves. And so we need to take account of that when we're actually measuring remotely the wind above the ground. And so there's more testing to be done. And ultimately, the goal is to deploy some of these, this technology out of the coast of New York Bight.

Treinish: And, you know, and then just a follow up on that one aspect of that information, you know, in terms of the wind patterns and conditions above the Earth's surface in the lower part of the atmosphere, we see evidence that there's coupling between those aspects of the weather and how a lake responds. And so that could then have a connection to, you know, to the conditions for algal blooms. So they these kinds of fundamental information have multiple applications. So in this case renewable energy and water quality.

Levulis: Those are all the main questions that I had, I'm not sure if either of you wanted to add anything regarding this partnership between UAlbany or IBM that I didn't touch on.

Thorncroft: I think, just generally, I think this is like a dream team. I think, bringing together the technology and expertise of IBM researchers and their experience with similar talents and the data streams that we can provide at ASRC through the New York State Mesonet. And also our Center of Excellence, which is a state funded entity to promote research with the private sector, I think we’re looking forward to working together on solving a lot of important problems, both in terms of we talked about algal blooms, but also things about road weather, flooding, I think I look forward to doing more work with IBM and Lloyd’s team, to tackling many of these important issues that face the state. And let me add, also, that the state and the Northeast in general, has seen an increased frequency of extreme weather, particularly in terms of rainfall over the last decades. And so we need to be prepared for all sorts of extreme weather and so by improving our capacity to improve weather forecasts, through our research, I think could have a very serious benefit for the state.

Treinish: And one of the things from the IBM perspective, you know, we're also quite excited about the research that we can do together. But another element is that some of our IBM clients have some complex business problems that are driven by weather conditions. And one aspect of this is, we hope to bring some of that complexity into these into the research, you know, to enable what we learned have practical benefit for people or for businesses. Another aspect is that, you know, given you unique data such as from the Mesonet, some of what we expect to learn and apply in New York State, we feel very strongly can be relevant to other parts of the US and beyond. And so that's another element that with the IBM connection, since we do have customers and research labs outside New York, and we can bring some of that to bear as well in terms of building on what we learn as part of this collaboration.

Thorncroft: And if I could add one more thing, representing the University of Albany here and the academic mission, this offers amazing opportunities for students to get experience working on real life issues, working with a great company like IBM, it's just a fantastic experience for students.

Treinish: And certainly, from the IBM perspective, nurturing talent that can contribute with the companies like ours is the other aspect of working together. So, you know, helping to create a more vibrant and sophisticated workforce that recognizes the challenges of these kinds of problems and the importance of being able to solve them.

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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