Customized weather maps developed at Penn State can help avert disaster

August 08, 2007

University Park, Pa. -- Beef ranchers in South Dakota were devastated when they recently discovered more than 2,800 of their cattle were dead, the result of an extended heat wave in the area. Geographic Information System (GIS) map services developed through a collaborative effort between the National Weather Service (NWS) and Penn State could have alerted ranchers about this potential tragedy. Two weather variables, high temperature and high humidity, combined over prolonged periods to create conditions that caused the cattle deaths. Using combinations of different weather-related variables, GIS map services can serve up easy-to-read formats that target the needs of multiple users. "After this event, I imagine cattle owners will take more seriously mitigation and preparedness steps should similar weather conditions be forecast in the future, and hopefully they will do so with the aid of these map services," said Penn State alumnus Jack Settelmaier, digital techniques meteorologist at the NWS's southern region headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas. Bernd Haupt, senior research associate in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences at Penn State, in collaboration with Maurie C. Kelly, Ryan Baxter and James Spayd of Penn State Institutes of Energy and the Environment (PSIEE), are working cooperatively with Settelmaier to convert ever-changing, live streams of NWS weather forecast data from its raw form into GIS-ready formats (feature and image map services). These free services can be used now by any number of weather-sensitive users to, for example, help them make decisions to mitigate loss of life and property due to the effects of impacting weather conditions being forecast. "These weather-related GIS map services allow users to combine information important and relevant to the user's field of study with overlays of weather forecasts," said Haupt. "Going one step further, these fields can be queried, analyzed, and new fields can be calculated based on them to assist decision-makers." Map services currently available to the GIS community include minimum and maximum temperature, chance of measurable rainfall for 12-hour periods, temperature, dew point, rainfall and snowfall amounts for six-hour periods, wind direction and speed, significant wave height, sky cover, heat index/wind chill, relative humidity, wind gust, one-hour average ozone, eight-hour average ozone, vertical-column smoke and surface-level smoke. Haupt, Kelly, Baxter and Spayd combine a number of weather-related fields/variables to construct customized service maps that are specific to an emergency manager's needs. For instance, Haupt, using several climate variables, designed maps of Canada that show fire hot spots. The maps show specific areas where, because of the forecast weather conditions, fires are most likely to start. An example of a fire hot spot map is available at online. Additionally, GIS map services containing weather forecasts up to seven days in the future can show the likely path smoke from a wildfire might take. By overlaying forecast weather conditions on a map of street networks, housing and other critical infrastructure assets, emergency managers can better decide whether or not to order road closings or even evacuations. PSIEE's service enables the weather data through the creation of Internet Map Services (IMS) so they are available to anyone with an Internet connection. These map services allow the served data to be easily integrated into a desktop GIS software package via the Internet with just a click of a button. The team also developed viewing capabilities through Google Earth. Using desktop GIS software like ArcMap, image or feature services can be added by pointing that software to online. Additional software that can be used includes ESRI's free ArcExplorer viewer or Java-based ArcExplorer which can be downloaded at and online. A PowerPoint slide show detailing this collaborative effort between the National Weather Service and Penn State is available at online. For additional information on this service or details about how to access it, contact Haupt at (814) 865-8188 or via e-mail, Kelly at (814) 863-0104 or via e-mail or Settelmaier at (817) 978-1300 or via e-mail.

  • Users can bring image and feature services directly into their desktop GIS software.

    IMAGE: Penn State

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Last Updated February 28, 2013