By Dr. Chris Thorncroft, Director, Atmospheric Sciences Research Center and Professor, Atmospheric & Environmental Sciences, University at Albany
The flooding that devastated Rensselaer and Montgomery counties this month illustrates a sobering lesson repeated across the country this summer. From record-breaking heat in the Pacific Northwest, to early-forming tropical storms in the Atlantic, to the wildfire soot that clouded the skies in the Adirondacks – no corner of the United States is immune from severe weather. And these extremes are becoming more frequent due to human-caused climate change.
In the Northeast, severe weather can be sudden and deadly, posing a direct threat to public safety and the vibrancy our economy. To reduce that risk, researchers at the University at Albany are leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) to help science better predict these extreme storms.
Just last year, the National Science Foundation (NSF) named UAlbany’s Atmospheric Sciences Research Center (ASRC) as a partner in its Institute for Research on Trustworthy AI in Weather, Climate and Coastal Oceanography, one of seven new NSF-led AI research institutes. A group of 20 UAlbany researchers specializing in climate, atmospheric science, emergency preparedness, and other related disciplines were also recently selected to join a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Severe Weather Research Institute funded up to $208 million over the next five years.
Thanks to these federal investments and the support of UAlbany’s representatives in Congress, we will continue to advance AI-based technologies that help better monitor, predict, and communicate about extreme weather. UAlbany’s Center of Excellence in Weather & Climate Analytics, for example, has partnered with the state Department of Transportation to build a customizable dashboard that applies machine-learning techniques to weather data from the New York State Mesonet to produce forecasts that will help the state prepare for winter storms and more efficiently clear snow and ice from highways. Another partnership between ASRC researchers and the Consolidated Edison Company of New York uses numerical weather prediction modeling and machine learning to create a Wind Extremes Forecast System that helps improve the resiliency of the state’s power distribution.
Beyond saving lives, this work is good for the economy. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Energy estimated that power outages alone cost American businesses $150 billion annually. If we extrapolate that loss to all the aftereffects of extreme weather, we are talking about serious and repeated economic damage.
That’s why the longstanding partnership between UAlbany and our federal research agencies is essential – and why federal funding for this kind of research is critical to our nation’s ability to tackle the challenges that lie ahead. The federal government was the university’s largest source of research funds between 2016 and 2020, and NSF represented nine percent of those grants. An April report from The Science Coalition, of which UAlbany is a member, found that federal research investment from NSF and others added over $690 million to New York’s economy between 2016 and 2020 and supported nearly 9,000 jobs. The economic benefits of this investment reach far beyond the Empire State. The same report found that the companies featured within it supported nearly 100,000 jobs, attracted billions of dollars in research grants, and contributed more than $1.3 billion to the national GDP.
As we move forward from the pandemic, we must not lose sight of the life-saving role American researchers played in the United States’ response to COVID-19 and will continue to play as we confront daunting problems like climate change. Like the pandemic, these issues will significantly impact how healthy and just our economy and society will be in the future. What’s more, COVID-19 was a sobering example of the way these kinds of catastrophes can perpetuate and deepen existing inequities if we lack the knowledge and will to stop it.
To this end, it is critical that Congress continue to support robust, consistent, and predictable investment in federal research so the work of UAlbany and countless others can continue. I know every weather-weary New Yorker will be thankful for it.
Chris Thorncroft is the Director of the Atmospheric Sciences Research Center, NYS Mesonet and Center of Excellence in Weather & Climate Analytics at the University at Albany