UAH, NASA partner in climate research that’s essential here and abroad

Dan Irwin and Dr. Rob Griffin

MSFC’s Dan Irwin, left, and UAH’s Dr. Rob Griffin, right, with students working in NASA’s SERVIR program.

Michael Mercier | UAH

Developing countries count on a solid partnership between The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) and NASA to manage climate risks and land use.

To help make these decisions, they use SERVIR, a joint development initiative of NASA and the U.S Agency for International Development (USAID). Partnering with regional organizations at SERVIR’s global hubs, the agencies help developing countries use information provided by Earth observing satellites and geospatial technologies. SERVIR's goal is to help countries improve environmental management and resilience to climate change.

"UAH is a key partner and contributor to SERVIR, coordinating science activities at the SERVIR hubs and helping hub regions access and use the best of NASA science to address issues such as droughts, floods, weather forecasting, land use and food security," says Daniel Irwin, SERVIR director.

"Atmospheric Science and NASA’s MSFC Earth Science Office collaborate closely on a wide variety of basic and applied research topics in the earth and atmospheric sciences," says Dr. Larry Carey, chair of UAH’s Atmospheric Science Department and associate director of the Earth System Science Center. "It works well because we have a shared research vision to improve our understanding of the Earth/atmosphere system, to develop new technologies to observe and model weather and climate and to transition our research to operations for maximum societal benefit."

Home to the ESSC and the National Space Science and Technology Center (NSSTC), UAH’s Cramer Hall provides a unique collocation strength that helps maintain a productive relationship, Dr. Carey says.

"Face-to-face interaction on a day-to-day basis promotes active collaboration, strong ties and an entrepreneurial spirit that benefits all equally," he says. "We can get more done when working together, which leads me to the next key element of our success – people."

The effort succeeds, Dr. Carey says, because of the unique capabilities, ingenuity and hard work of NASA scientists and UAH faculty, staff and students. Irwin agrees.

"The UAH Department of Earth System Science and Department of Atmospheric Science are incredibly valuable to SERVIR because the focus of each closely aligns with our objective to provide better knowledge of the Earth as a system and use Earth observations and geospatial technology for environmental decision-making," says Irwin.

"This collaboration enables us to tap into the expertise of UAH scientists and researchers and also provides us graduate research assistants that are well trained and aligned to our needs," he says.

On the other hand, he says SERVIR provides an opportunity for UAH researchers to work on a high-energy program to apply their research and expertise to real world problems in the developing world related to water and water-related disasters, food security and agriculture, weather and climate, and land use and ecosystems.

SERVIR hubs are located in Nairobi, Kenya, to serve Eastern and Southern Africa; in Kathmandu, Nepal, for the Hindu Kush-Himalaya region of Asia; at the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center in Bangkok, Thailand; and its newest hub at SERVIR-West Africa, launched in 2016.

"As a result," Irwin says, "SERVIR has a global impact."

A UAH champion to strengthen the NASA and UAH relationship is Dr. Robert Griffin, assistant professor of atmospheric science and director of the Alabama Remote Sensing Consortium (ARSC).

"Without Rob’s leadership from the UAH side, we would not be where we are today," Irwin says. "He has helped in so many areas, such as supporting research, helping to build and coordinate a great UAH team of researchers that support SERVIR and identifying top notch graduate research assistants (GRAs). UAH GRAs Susan Kotikot, Kel Marker and Casey Calamaio have done excellent work for SERVIR and provided us with valuable knowledge through their research."

A native of Kenya, Kotikot came to the U.S. to work with SERVIR and is working to help mitigate crop damage by frost in Kenya to protect livelihoods.

Markert helped SERVIR to process imagery from ISERV, SERVIR’s Earth-observing camera aboard the International Space Station, and is now a regional science associate for the program.

An expert in unmanned aerial vehicles, Calamaio researched forest mapping in Guatemala in collaboration with the Guatemalan Park Service, known as CONAP.

"I am the principal investigator at UAH for the science support we provide to SERVIR and I couldn’t be more proud of the dozen-plus UAH researchers and graduate students that support SERVIR full-time," says Dr. Griffin. "It is truly impressive the global network and societal impact that Dan Irwin and his team have built up over the past decade."

There are only a handful of places in the U.S. where a NASA Earth science research office is co-located with a university, Dr. Griffin says. "Dan’s and the SERVIR team’s offices are quite literally right down the hall and this is a terrific resource for us in terms of developing collaborative research proposals and fostering ideas."

UAH collaborates with SERVIR by providing expertise in geospatial analysis, satellite remote sensing, environmental modeling, disasters, hydrology, land use and land cover and atmospheric science. The relationship partners UAH scientists and engineers, faculty and graduate students with NASA civil servants, contractors and program leads.

"Graduate students from all over the world come to UAH to be part of this exciting project, developing research projects and theses that help solve pressing environmental needs around the world," says Dr. Griffin.

Undergraduate students also get involved, learning about SERVIR and MSFC Earth science through guest lectures in their 100-level Earth system science courses.

"Because of our relationship with NASA projects like SERVIR, and the cooperative agreement that makes them possible, the UAH programs in Earth and Atmospheric Science are growing and our graduates are in high demand," Dr. Griffin says.

Besides SERVIR, Dr. Carey says the Earth Science Office also houses NASA’s Short-term Prediction Research and Transition (SPoRT) Center and the Global Hydrology Research Center (GHRC).

"Each center has a unique research mission and capabilities," Dr. Carey says. "UAH students, staff and faculty can be found actively participating in all of them. Assisting NASA with their various goals increases the research enterprise at UAH and provides the opportunity to jointly develop new ideas and compete for new research funding collaboratively with NASA."

There is purposeful overlap in UAH’s research interests and those of NASA MSFC.

"In fact, we always include a NASA scientist on our faculty hiring committees to insure that we are pursuing excellence in areas that help maintain the vigor of our collaborative research enterprise," says Dr. Carey. "NASA benefits by working with multiple UAH research teams that provide unique knowledge, research capabilities and facilities."

UAH and NASA use ESSC research labs in severe weather, radar, satellite remote sensing, atmospheric chemistry and lightning, as well as a large multi-processor computer system for climate and weather modeling and data assimilation. A new UAH facility is the Severe Weather Institute Radar & Lightning Laboratory (SWIRLL) that provides unique mobile and fixed research infrastructure within five high bays for mobile platforms, several interior labs, fixed roof top platforms and an operations center for studying severe and hazardous weather, radar meteorology, lightning physics and air quality.

UAH has worked closely with MSFC to design, fabricate and test the Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM), a new instrument launched in November on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric administration (NOAA) GOES-R satellite series. GLM is a single channel, near-infrared optical transient detector that can detect the presence of lightning continuously over the Americas and adjacent ocean regions with near-uniform spatial resolution of about 8-10 km.

GLM’s hardware and software systems are based on legacy lightning instrumentation also developed jointly by UAH and NASA MSFC, including the NASA Optical Transient Detector (OTD) and Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) Lightning Imaging Sensor (LIS).

"LIS and GLM provide unique observations for NASA and UAH to study fundamental processes in atmospheric convection, cloud electricity, climate, tropical cyclones, severe storms and other high impact weather," says Dr. Carey.

GLM observations will provide new tools for meteorologists to diagnose and forecast severe and tornadic storms. One such tool being transitioned to the NOAA National Weather Service (NWS) is the lightning jump algorithm, jointly designed and tested by UAH and MSFC. It provides valuable added severe storm warning time with high probability of detection and relatively low false alarm ratio.

"The transitioning of the lightning jump from research-to-operations (R2O) was greatly facilitated by the UAH-NASA staff and students working in the NASA SPoRT center with the feedback of NOAA NWS forecasters," Dr. Carey says. "A similar R2O paradigm has been successfully used by NASA and UAH with convective initiation and lightning forecasting tools based on the upcoming GOES-R Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI) instrument."

NASA’s SPoRT Center and the NASA/MSFC Earth Science Office have benefitted from such cooperation, says Dr. Gary Jedlovec, who from 2002-2014 was the project lead and principal investigator for SPoRT and currently manages NASA/MSFC’s Earth Science Office.

SPoRT transitions unique observations and research capabilities to the operational weather community to improve short-term weather forecasts on a regional and local scale.

"Through the SPoRT program, NASA and UAH provide unique research capabilities in support of NOAA and the NWS across the country," says Dr. Jedlovec. "Each organization provides complementary expertise, making the joint research effort stronger than most other collaborations.

Through this collaboration, the UAH faculty, staff and students have access to NASA equipment such as lab space and tools, hardware such as airborne instruments, data, and models, software and other resources, says Dr. Jedlovec.

"Students get to participate in cutting-edge NASA research that students at most other universities don’t routinely have access to. The ability to partner with NASA scientists on peer-reviewed proposals boosts the research opportunities for faculty and staff," he says.

NASA partnerships provide UAH scientists with stronger connections with end users, Dr. Jedlovec says.

"Many Marshall scientists are adjunct faculty members and they mentor students, provide Graduate Research Assistant (GRA) opportunities and occasionally teach academic courses in areas of their unique technical expertise," he says. "Partnering with the faculty and research staff at the university brings technical expertise that MSFC does not have, making the joint proposals more competitive in the peer review process."

Collocation at the NSSTC builds strong partner teams that increase productivity and the value of the outcomes from research, he says.

"UAH scientists form a key component of our team by providing the expertise to analyze and process satellite data, derive geophysical parameters, develop and implement product training, and help transition products into end-user decision support systems," says Dr. Jedlovec. "These capabilities complement those of NASA and form a strong research team."

The lightning data archive for all of NASA, the GHRC was collaboratively founded between MSFC and UAH, says Dr. Sara Graves, director of UAH’s Information Technology and Systems Center (ITSC) and professor of computer science. GHRC also houses many other types of NASA satellite and field campaign data that are received, managed and distributed by ITSC.

"Scientists worldwide come to the GHRC to get data, as well as tools to help them use the data," says Dr. Graves. "We also have many other projects for creating various tools and technologies. Some have been collaborative through MSFC and UAH, but a very important contribution that UAH is making to this is that UAH will bring in the National Science Foundation (NSF) and other sources of funding, such as Dept. of Defense funding. We then incorporate those back into the GHRC and into other NASA projects."

ITSC is involved with MSFC in disaster and hazard work, as well, including using data to help during weather-related emergencies such as hurricanes and tornados and in other emergency situations such as earthquakes. UAH applies its data mining tools to help make the NASA data useful and relevant.

Internationally, UAH and MSFC work with the European, Japanese and German space agencies.

"We have a lot of partners that Marshall doesn’t have, and vice versa," Dr. Graves says. "It broadens our community, from a computer science standpoint as well as the Earth science involved."

UAH and MSFC also worked together to relocate the Sally Ride EarthKAM to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville from the University of California-San Diego, providing grade and high school students with the ability to capture Earth images from the camera aboard the International Space Station.

"It’s been a fantastic and very productive professional relationship, but it has also provided for a lot of personal relationships," says Dr. Graves. "That always helps when you are trying to do collaborations on research or operating a data center."

The relationship has been durable, lasting over 20 years, she says. The two institutions support each other in research.

"Sometimes we write proposals together," Dr. Graves says, "and other times UAH will go to Marshall and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got this neat idea and we’d like you to collaborate with us.’"

Having the other weather agencies and organizations involved located at Cramer Hall is a plus, says Cindy Upton, MSFC Science and Technology Office operations lead and NSSTC facility manager.

"In addition to NASA and UAH, we have the regional NWS office, which is part of NOAA; the Universities Space Research Association (USRA); and other partners who mutually benefit from the research done here," says Upton, whose roles include managing the UAH-MSFC cooperative agreement, federal and state regulations compliance and managing the workings of the partnership. "The National Weather Service uses some of the NASA models in their weather forecasting."

For UAH students, being exposed to NASA as they learn is invaluable to their future careers.

"It’s great for our faculty and staff, but it is particularly excellent for our students," says Dr. Thomas Koshut, a UAH associate vice president for research and economic development. "When they walk into Cramer Hall, they don’t see UAH people and NASA people, they see it as one critical mass of researchers working together."

NASA scientists teach classes and are involved in student qualifying examinations and the dissertation process for masters and doctoral degrees.

"In return," Dr. Koshut says, "NASA gets our students, with all of their youth, energy, exuberance and new ideas."


Dr. Larry Carey

Dr. Sara Graves

Dr. Thomas Koshut

Jim Steele