LSU faculty students build ultimate portable weather system to monitor hurricanes

Denise Attaway, Chiu, Yin-Lin  |  6/4/2008 12:49:32 AM

The new portable weather-monitoring system was tested this spring at the LSU AgCenter’s Ben Hur Research Farm, so its readings could be compared to those of a permanent station on that site. Members of the production and design team shown with the tower at the test site are, top row, left to right, Garrett McCrory, Anna Wojtanowicz, Robert Schinetsky, Robert Stroemer and Travis Rushing, and bottom row, left to right, Kirby Hebert, Dr. Rob Howard, Matthew Taghehchian and Jack Chiu. Described as the “ultimate portable weather system,” it’s designed to be rolled into the path of a hurricane to provide meteorologists and emergency management personnel with “real time” information about a storm.

Team members Garrett McCrory, Travis Rushing and Matthew Taghehchian adjust the winch cable used to lift the tower. The equipment is mounted on a heavy-duty trailer for easy transport, so it can be set up where it’s needed along the Louisiana coast.

Jack Chiu adds sealant to one of the collars for the submersible data-acquisition enclosure. Although the portable weather station is expected to be placed in areas where storm surge wouldn’t ordinarily be an issue, it also is designed to save its data and make recovery possible even if its power system fails because of storm surge or another problem.

Faculty and students from two LSU System campuses combined their talents and expertise to produce a state-of-the-art weather station that could be rolled into the path of a hurricane if one comes our way.

A cooperative venture of faculty in the LSU Hurricane Center and the LSU AgCenter, along with LSU mechanical engineering students, the station is designed to help monitor the intensity of storms as they approach the Louisiana coast. It’s one of less than a dozen weather stations of its caliber and structural integrity in the country and the only one in Louisiana, according to the experts.

“Hurricanes Katrina and Rita really demonstrated a weakness in our ability to closely monitor storm intensities in real time as they approach the coast,” said Dr. J.R. “Rob” Howard, an associate with the LSU Hurricane Center, who spearheaded the project.

Howard obtained a grant from the Louisiana Board of Regents to design and construct a storm-ready portable weather tower. The objective was to build an easily movable, state-of-the-art, integrated weather-monitoring system that could collect highly detailed, research-grade meteorological data.

“More importantly, the system needed to be hardened to withstand the brunt force of a tropical system, because the goal is to put the station in the path of the eyewall – the region of strongest winds and worst weather in the storm,” explained Howard, who has been conducting research on and “chasing” hurricanes for nearly 10 years. He’s placed portable weather stations in the paths of many prior storms along the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic coasts – most notably his successful effort in the eye of 2005’s Katrina.

With coordination from the LSU Hurricane Center’s administration, a team was assembled to undertake the project of designing the new portable weather station and having it ready for the start of this year’s hurricane season June 1. The team included Hurricane Center personnel, along with mechanical engineering students from LSU and participants from the LSU AgCenter’s Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering.

The team came up with what is believed to be the “ultimate portable weather system.” Its structural design ensures the system is capable of withstanding winds during the height of a hurricane's fury, and although the station will be placed in an area expected to be free from storm surge, it also is designed to save its data and make recovery possible even if its power system fails because of storm surge or another problem.

Some of that task came as a result of the work done in the LSU AgCenter’s Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering. Configuration and installation of the data-gathering “guts” of the hardened platform – weather instrumentation, data-logging hardware and electrical/power systems – were performed primarily in that AgCenter department.

Howard and Yin-Lin “Jack” Chiu, coordinator for the LSU AgCenter’s Louisiana Agriclimatic Information System (LAIS), played critical roles in getting the station “weather ready” for deployment.

“The tower program benefited from the weather-instrumentation expertise provided by the LAIS team,” Howard said. “Without that, our June 1 deadline would have been in real jeopardy.

“Jack and I have been working all hours in recent weeks, and his contributions with instrumentation and electronics have kept us on track to meet our timeline,” he added.

In addition, the first “test run” of the portable weather station was performed on the LSU AgCenter’s Ben Hur Farm (Central Research Station) this spring. That site was chosen so that the portable tower's observations could be compared with the AgCenter’s LAIS weather station on that site – allowing for a cross-check comparison of data from the two weather-monitoring systems.

The spring tests were a success, and Howard believes the portable system is “field ready” for the start of the 2008 hurricane season. Its communications equipment is anticipated to be operational by mid-August, which marks the beginning of the peak two months of the season.

Once placed in the path of an approaching storm, the weather platform will fill two functions.

“Near real-time observations relayed from the station will provide critical storm details for operational meteorologists and emergency management personnel regarding the size, strength and speed of the storm,” Howard said. “It also will give us a clearer picture as to whether the storm is intensifying or weakening as it approaches the coast and will give an indication of the potential damage in the impacted areas.”

Of equal value will be the detailed, multi-dimensional data collected for post-storm analysis, the experts say.

“With up to 20 observations being recorded each second, we will have a ‘weather signature’ of the passing storm rarely available in past landfalls,” Howard noted.

The experts say this project combines applied aspects of real-time monitoring for operational support with the high-resolution details supporting scientific analysis of tropical systems – meaning it’s giving “double-bang for the buck.”

“We've got some ‘final touches’ to complete, but we'll be ready for the 2008 season,” Howard said in late May.

Among the others participating in the project were Dr. Marc Levitan, director of the LSU Hurricane Center, who served as the official principal investigator for the grant-funded project, and LSU mechanical engineering undergraduates Tim Borne, Garrett McCrory, Travis Rushing, Robert Schinetsky, Robert Stroemer, Matthew Taghehchian and Anna Wojtanowicz, who, under the direction of Kirby Hebert, Dane Dartez, Howard and Levitan, were tasked with implementing the final design and building the collapsible tower, which included installation on a heavy-duty trailer for easy transport.

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