UCAR’s president talks about space weather, radio occultation and a multidisciplinary approach to Earth science

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As Congress and the Trump Administration seek to improve space weather coordination, the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) is eager to help. UCAR, a nonprofit consortium of 120 North American colleges and universities focused on Earth system science, runs the annual Space Weather Workshop sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Science Foundation and NASA.

Although the April 2020 conference was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, UCAR continues to conduct space weather research and make observations through the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), a federally funded research and development center for the National Science Foundation. UCAR also manages research and education projects, called UCAR Community Programs, like the six-satellite Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere, and Climate-2 (COSMIC-2) constellation. UCAR processes and disseminates data for COSMIC-2, a joint U.S.-Taiwanese initiative.

Both UCAR and NCAR are based in Boulder, Colorado, where the vast majority of their 1,300 employees are working from home due to the pandemic. Outside Colorado, NCAR employees continue to operate the Wyoming Supercomputing Center in Cheyenne and the Mauna Loa Solar Observatory in Hawaii. UCAR also has a Washington office to advocate for sustained investment in Earth system sciences.

Antonio Busalacchi took the helm at UCAR in 2016 after leading the Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center at the University of Maryland, where he was a professor in the Atmospheric and Oceanic Science Department. Before that, Busalacchi spent 18 years at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, overseeing the Laboratory for Hydrospheric Processes.

Busalacchi, who earned a Ph.D. in oceanography from Florida State University, served as a co-chair of the 2017-2027 Decadal Survey for Earth Science and Applications from Space. Busalacchi spoke with SpaceNews correspondent Debra Werner in April.

What impact is the pandemic having on UCAR’s work?

All in all, things are going as well if not better than can be expected. We are in our fifth week of working from home and adapting to the new life. All our employees are salaried and we don’t see any layoffs in the near-term. Our crisis-management team is keeping us safe, informed and plugged in. A limited number of employees are going to facilities like our supercomputer in Cheyenne that is part of the COVID-19 High Performance Supercomputing Consortium, and the Mauna Loa Observatory, where people are looking at the impact of the worldwide economic slowdown on climate and air quality.

What are your priorities?

NCAR is the National Science Foundation’s oldest and largest federally funded research and development center, or FFRDC. My priority is to be the best possible steward of the National Science Foundation’s investment.

Also, UCAR is governed by 120 universities in North America. I’m the first UCAR president to come straight from academia in more than 40 years. During my time in academia, I was furloughed twice. U.S. colleges and universities are in for a rough time due to the pandemic. There will be a decrease in enrollment. We will be looking for ways to support our colleagues in academia.

“If we can predict Earth as a coupled system, that will provide tangible, actionable information to a whole range of societal benefits,” said UCAR President Antonio Busalacchi. Credit: UCAR

Is space weather an important focus for UCAR and NCAR?

Providing a fundamental understanding of how the sun and Earth are connected is fundamental to NCAR’s mission. NCAR is improving models. NCAR also is proposing a 1.5-meter aperture Large Coronagraph for the Coronal Solar Magnetism Observatory, a suite of instruments to measure magnetic fields in the corona and chromosphere.

Why is space weather getting more attention than in the past?

Improvements in space weather prediction capability are critical for the national and world economy. Look at what’s going on now with telework and telemedicine. We need a stable networking infrastructure. Space weather can affect GPS, the power grid, communications networks. The Space Force needs this space domain awareness. If we were to have a [solar storm like the] 1859 Carrington event, we’d run the risk of another breakdown in the global economy overnight.

Are there any problems with the current U.S. approach to space weather?

Space weather has a lot of parents: NOAA, NASA, National Science Foundation, Department of Defense, Federal Aviation Administration. It’s also an orphan because no single agency has the lead. There’s been a lot of scientific advances. Now we need to take advantage of those and move forward to improve space weather prediction capabilities. I’m optimistic because we are seeing bipartisan support for national coordination of efforts to improve space weather prediction capabilities.

How is work on radio occultation progressing now that COSMIC-2 has launched?

We are thrilled with the result from COSMIC-2. It is obtaining more than 4,00 radio occultation profiles a day and exceeding the National Weather Prediction Center requirement to deliver information in 45 minutes. It has been particularly important for weather prediction in the tropics.

What do you think of the commercial radio occultation pilot program?

I’m very bullish on data buys. But the government needs to establish the best practices. Who has insight into the algorithms, calibration and validation data? If a company goes belly up, who gets access to the intellectual property? The pilot program is very encouraging but when you talk about data streams critical for protecting life, property and national security, these questions need to be answered.

I think we need another COSMIC program. COSMIC-2 provides better data than the private sector is currently providing. Weather people talk about moving from research to operations. I also like moving from research to industry. We are licensing a satellite data processing system to Atmospheric and Environmental, Inc. We are a step ahead of industry. COSMIC is an example of the innovation that comes from outside the federal agencies. Sometimes federal agencies are risk averse.

Anything else you want to say?

Coming out of World War II, our knowledge of the dynamics and physics of the atmosphere together with digital computing and research from groups like NCAR ushered in a multibillion-dollar private sector weather enterprise. If we can predict Earth as a coupled system, that will provide tangible, actionable information to a whole range of societal benefits. We’re going to need enhanced space-based and ground-based observations, improved models, high-performance computing and data analytics from government, academia and the private sector.

This article originally appeared in the June 15, 2020 issue of SpaceNews magazine.