Xtreme Sensing — Center Develops Sensor Technology to Expand Knowledge of Environment

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Al Gasiewski

Electrical and Computer Engineering

CU engineers are collecting data on climate change and other environmental phenomena from the tropics to the Arctic Circle using sensing equipment developed at the Center for Environmental Technology.

The center was established in the CU-Boulder Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in 2006 with a major equipment grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Earth System Research Laboratory. Professor and Director Al Gasiewski said the move from NOAA to CU-Boulder allows the center to more fully tap the creativity and expertise of CU faculty and students.

The center is developing environmental technology to collect data on the environment that can't be measured in any other way, Gasiewski says. Research and education are focused on developing sensors, systems of sensors, associated hardware, and algorithms for environmental observation to meet the observational needs of a number of government and industry sponsors.

"Understanding and managing the environment—whether for agriculture, health, water resources, disaster mitigation, energy generation, transportation, weather forecasting, climate modeling, or biodiversity—requires accurate knowledge of many variables on a wide range of time and space scales," Gasiewski says.

Both in situ and remote sensors, and active and passive systems, are used to investigate climate data such as soil moisture content, sea ice and snow cover, as well as data such as sea surface temperatures, ocean winds, humidity, and precipitation that play a role in the development of severe weather. Observational methods being developed range from acoustic to electromagnetic waves, and include point measurements as well as wide-area imaging.

All of the center's equipment is built to withstand harsh environmental conditions while maintaining its sensitivity to record the most subtle changes in climate and weather. Observations may be made from ships and submersibles, aircraft (both manned and unmanned), spacecraft, or ground-based equipment. While aircraft platforms have been used primarily for short duration measurements in localized areas, researchers are also testing sensing equipment on UAVs, which could potentially extend the measurement period up to a week or more in the near future, Gasiewski says.

Observations of the arctic atmosphere were made recently using a ground-based, multi-channel scanning microwave radiometer in Barrow, Alaska. The equipment was built to withstand temperatures of -40 degrees centigrade and recalibrate itself every 2 minutes to obtain high quality readings of clouds and water vapor over a one-month period. Research Professor Ed Westwater said the project demonstrated the great potential of this type of equipment and provided detail on the frequencies most sensitive at arctic temperatures.

Other researchers are using a polarimetric scanning radiometer (PSR) developed by the NOAA laboratory to image the Earth's oceans, land, ice, clouds, and precipitation. This versatile, airborne microwave imaging radiometer accommodates mission-specific scanheads in a gimbal-mounted drum that can be rotated for precision conical imaging, according to researcher Marian Klein. The PSR has been flown more than 800 hours in the last decade on different types of aircraft, taking measurements during hurricanes and other storms and observing an "atmospheric river" that redirects moisture from the equatorial region into the mid-latitudinal area.

The center combines its development of sensor technology with radiative transfer modeling aimed at improving weather forecasting models. Anticipating the eventual launch of a new system of all-weather microwave sensors in geostationary orbit, the center is working to put everything else into place.

"We are pushing the frontiers by advancing the sensor hardware, improving the resolution of observational data, and assimilating those data into better, higher resolution weather models," Gasiewski says. "This will not only improve our ability to forecast severe weather events accurately, but also provide the specificity needed to improve the value of forecasts for everyday, individual use."

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