Weather Stations Given Homeland-Security Role

By Darcia Harris Bowman — May 14, 2003 | Corrected: February 23, 2019 4 min read
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Corrected: This story gave the wrong name for the company that owns a nationwide network of school-based weather stations. It is AWS Convergence Technologies Inc.

When John Leck’s 8th grade gifted-and-talented science students talked about prevailing winds last week at Kingsview Middle School, they had disasters on their minds—mostly the man-made kind.

Consulting the colorful compasses and graphs of the WeatherNet Classroom Web site, which track data captured by equipment mounted on the school’s rooftop, the class puzzled over how best to survive a chemical spill on a nearby highway or the fallout of a small-scale atomic explosion in downtown Washington, located just 25 miles south of this quiet suburban community.

The exercise, though based on merely potential catastrophes, offered a preview of how weather-prediction technology designed to aid classroom learning might someday be employed to defend the nation, putting schools on the front lines of the war against terrorism.

“Fortunately, we haven’t had to use [the technology] for that purpose,” Mr. Leck said. “But I think the kids really get into the idea that their school would be part of homeland security.”

Kingsview is one of 6,000 schools across the country outfitted with WeatherNet Classroom technology—simple rooftop stations that look like weather vanes with buckets, and computer software that translates the raw data supplied by that equipment and carries it over the Internet for teachers and students to consult and manipulate.

Together, the schools form the largest network of real-time, automated weather stations in the world, offering the federal government a powerful tool if scenarios such as those discussed in Mr. Leck’s class come to pass.

Public-Private Link

The WeatherNet Classroom system isn’t public property.

It’s owned and operated by AWS Integrated Technologies Inc., the private-sector creator of WeatherNet Classroom that installed its first school-based weather station in 1992.

Last summer, in response to President Bush’s call for the business community to help defend the country against international terrorists, the Gaithersburg, Md., company announced a partnership with the federal government that will allow the National Weather Service to tap into its network in the event of a biological attack or other large-scale disaster.

The NWS, which operates a network of roughly 11,000 weather stations positioned mainly at the nation’s airports, would use the data to guide emergency response efforts, particularly in cities.

“The AWS system is so dense in urban areas, they can provide critical information about what’s going on,” said Curtis D. Carey, the public relations director for the National Weather Service. “That supplemental data is important because those heavily populated areas are the ones most at risk for terrorist strikes.”

In the Washington metropolitan area, for example, the agency could pull data from weather stations at more than 300 schools to determine the direction a biological agent might be drifting in the wind, how quickly and how far it might spread, and how its potency could be affected by present and future weather conditions.

Both AWS and government officials say that kind of information would have been valuable during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City, when the burning and collapse of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers spewed enormous clouds of toxic debris and smoke into the sky.

The National Weather Service installed a mobile weather station near Ground Zero that provided rescue workers with more precise wind-forecast models than those offered by its distant airport weather stations. But AWS already had more than 40 school-based stations in the vicinity of the World Trade Center.

The data those sites provide would have helped emergency managers predict the smoke and debris spread more accurately, allowing them to adjust their response more quickly.

Protecting the Nation

AWS sent certification packets to schools this year, inviting them to participate in the company’s effort by testing their equipment for optimal performance. So far, 25 schools have been certified as ready to be part of the homeland- security apparatus.

Among other measures, schools must photograph their WeatherNet stations from a variety of angles and confirm that the equipment isn’t positioned near heating vents or in some other location that might skew its measurements.

Participation is voluntary, but AWS executives predict most schools will buy in to the idea.

“It’s a way for them all to get involved in something bigger than what’s happening in the classroom; they’re helping to protect the country,” AWS Senior Vice President John Saaty said.

The 1,300-student Kingsview Middle School is one of those with a weather station certified for homeland-security purposes, a fact that Mr. Leck believes helps his students cope with their proximity to a primary target for terrorism: the nation’s capital.

“They say D.C. and Baltimore are the two big cities in this area that might get hit with biological or chemical weapons, right?” the fast-talking teacher asked his class last week. A few boys barked out nervous guffaws in response to the question, but most of the children simply nodded their heads.

“Knowing what we do about prevailing winds, do you think we’d have to worry about that?” Mr. Leck asked his students.

Looking at a map at the front of the classroom that showed Germantown’s location in relation to Washington, and wind-direction readings on the WeatherNet Classroom Web site, the youngsters correctly decided their answer was no.

“There are other weather conditions we might need to worry about,” Mr. Leck warned.

Still, knowing which way the wind blows is a start.

Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation

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