Forecasts of the Future

by Chris Carroll | Illustration by Jason A. Keisling

Glancing out the window tells you less about the weather than stepping outside. The same principle might also apply to meteorologists who rely only on computer screens to understand vast quantities of atmospheric data to predict dangerous storms.

Now, UMD researchers are developing a groundbreaking system that lets forecasters don a virtual reality headset and “fly through” the atmosphere. They zoom up next to temperature gradients, keep pace with differing wind speeds and soak up information on moisture content in a way that’s supremely intuitive—not to mention cool to look at.

“The current status is you chop up data into two-dimensional layers,” says Mason Quick, a meteorologist in the Cooperative Institute for Satellite Earth System Studies (CISESS). “But these are in fact three-dimensional datasets, so we’re now viewing them in their native form.”

Working with computer visualization experts in College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences Dean Amitabh Varshney’s Maryland Blended Reality Center lab, CISESS researchers have built a prototype system that incorporates a dozen of the more than 100 satellite atmospheric data sources.

As it matures, it’s not going to replace current, highly refined methods of analyzing weather, says CISESS meteorologist Patrick Meyers, but it could be a source of new insights, because quite literally, “it’s providing a whole new dimension.”


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