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October 8, 1998

New project will provide real-time weather and road reports covering all of Washington state

News and Information

Everyone in the Northwest talks about the weather. Now a University of Washington atmospheric scientist and the state Department of Transportation plan to do something about it.

No, they’re not going to change the weather. Instead, they plan to marshal information from a variety of sources to make it easier for travelers and road crews to see where it’s raining or snowing, and to provide road-condition reports and forecasts throughout the state.

Data from a number of sources across the state, including the National Weather Service, the Federal Aviation Administration, agricultural monitoring networks, air pollution sensing stations and even television station weather networks will be brought together in a single database, said Cliff Mass, the UW atmospheric sciences professor heading the project.

Information is available from about 350 observation stations from a variety of networks, but Mass said that number can be increased to 500 or more to provide more detailed weather information across the state. For example, the program will place automated weather stations on most state ferries plying Puget Sound, filling a gap in existing information. In addition, the state DOT plans to add 10 automated weather sites to its current 28, most of them in Cascade Mountain passes.

An important aspect of the effort will be the generation of detailed weather forecasts statewide using a high-resolution weather prediction system. That system, coupled with the dense array of observations, will be used to supply the public, businesses and government agencies with information on existing and forecast weather conditions that could affect transportation. For example, data on existing and forecast conditions will be used in pavement temperature models that will help predict the potential for roadway icing.

The project will be paid for by a $1.25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation and $250,000 from the state DOT.

Once the tools are in place to collect information from all those sources, the readings will be fed into a road-condition database to provide reports on existing and expected highway conditions. The increased data also will aid marine and aviation interests.

Mass said the first comprehensive information will be available on the Internet within six months, probably in the form of a clickable state map that will allow users to find weather and road information for local areas.

“There’s a tremendous hunger for this type of weather data,” Mass said. “I think the problem is finding a way to present key information to people without overloading them.”

The map eventually will include data on road construction and hazards such as mud slides, said Guy Coss, a transportation planner with the state DOT’s Advanced Technology Branch at the UW. The information won’t be confined to the Internet, he said. Eventually text-to-voice technology will transform printed data into reports that travelers can get from any telephone.

Coss expects the system to provide information detailed enough to allow road crews to know when and where to apply anti-icing compounds. “It is a lot more cost effective, in terms of cost and safety, to go out and put anti-icer down than it is to go out later and put down de-icer or sand. It’s a matter of being pro-active instead of reactive.”

Timing is critical because applying the compound too early or too late will prove ineffective. Being able to target problem areas is important because it would be too costly to apply anti-icer to all roads in a given area.

Coss and Mass both believe the system will reduce weather-related highway fatalities and property damage, simply by giving people the information they need to decide, perhaps, to delay a trip when conditions will be at their worst. Mass notes that in past winters, a number of travelers have been killed or injured in weather-related accidents over snow and ice.

“My impression is that a significant number of those could have been prevented if they had had better weather information,” he said.

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For more information, contact Mass at (206) 685-0910 or cliff@atmos.washington.edu, or Coss at (206) 685-9247 or gcoss@u.washington.edu.