Esmaili’s UMD website to spread storm tracking data

Hurricane Sandy: Super typhoon Haiyan: the polar vortex.  As the number of headline-making storms and weather events increases, so does the demand for information about them.  Rebekah Esmaili, an atmospheric and oceanic sciences graduate student at the University of Maryland, is developing a website in response to this need.

With help from advisor and ESSIC Associate Research Scientist Dr. Yudong Tian, Esmaili created, an aggregate of storm tracking research and data.

“Her work has attracted much attention from the [atmospheric sciences] community,” Tian said. “We set up the website to keep the community informed and will use it … to disseminate our findings and data.”

There are two methods used for storm tracking: the eulerian and the lagrangian. Eulerian tracking analyzes the storm from a fixed location, as the weather moves around the tracker. Lagrangian tracking does the opposite, and follows storm clouds as they form and decay.

Esmaili’s website compiles information from the latter method, using more than 10 years of data detailing countless storms.

“It’s actually a good time to be doing this kind of work,” Esmaili said, adding that the lagrangian model was largely unfeasible until recent decades  and the rise and development of satellite weather analysis instruments.

One way satellites track a storm is through infrared snapshots taken at 30-minute intervals.  To assemble the website’s content, Esmaili looks across these time frames almost like a flipbook and tracks the storm using special algorithms and thresholds that determine what is and isn’t rain.

The end result is a fairly easy and understandable analysis of storms and storm longevity, which can be utilized by a broad spectrum of researchers whose studies may encompass anything from air pollution to atmospheric transportation of moisture or chemicals.

“Potentially, some other people might be able to easily get this data set and apply it to what they’re doing, versus having to crunch all the numbers [and] download the data,” Esmaili said.

The website also serves to fill in the blanks of existing weather tracking devices, such as NASA’s Global Precipitation Measurement satellite, which maps global precipitation once every three hours.

“To monitor rainfall on the global scale, scientists have to rely on satellite observations, [which] have coverage gaps,” Tian said. “[Esmaili’s] work will track the storms’ continuous movements, which will enable us to produce continuous measurements of rainfall between the coverage gaps.”

Though the website’s content will be straightforward, Esmaili added that the inputs used in creating the content are both complex and time consuming.

“Time is a problem, just because I am a grad student too, so I don’t have necessarily the same expertise as someone who has had years and years of experience.”

Adding to the time factor, the data sets Esmaili examines do not differentiate between surface water and clouds.  As a result, Esmaili had to develop criteria that determined what a cloud is, which clouds classified as storms,  and which cloud sizes were large enough to track.

“It’s gonna be a big time commitment, but it’s worth it if it helps people,” she said.

Aside from scientific interest in the subject matter, the reason for the website’s creation is to ease the dispersal and use of information and data sets.

“I went to Brazil last year and I got to meet a lot of students in other parts of the world [who] don’t have access to NASA super computers [or] the hardware that do these calculations,” Esmaili said.  “And I’m fortunate, in that I have these resources; not everyone does. So making data available to me is leveling the playing ground so that everybody can get involved.”

Going forward, Esmaili is looking to incorporate visuals and user feedback in the website, and is considering adding interactive content.

“As I talk to people, I can refine what they want to see on the web and then change [things], so there’s gonna be different versions throughout the course of my career,” Esmaili said.