Mapmaker for the climate

If you love 3-D graphics, the daily TV weather maps just keep getting better. With the sweep of an arm, an announcer can set winds and weather systems in motion like the master of ceremonies in a three-ring circus. We can sit back and watch clouds, rain and snow swirl over landscapes from local to continental.

Precipitation for January 2011 over the continental United States shows up in this image based on data from the PRISM Climate Group at Oregon State University. (Map: Alex Wiggins)

Alex Wiggins would like to bring that kind of visual power to climate data, long-term records of temperature, precipitation, wind speed and the other features of weather systems. The native of Gresham, Oregon, is a master’s student in computer science at Oregon State University and has been working with the Oregon Climate Service and Microsoft Research to create a new generation of visual tools for understanding climate data.

The goal is to assist the state climate service in meeting requests for information. People will be able to use nothing more than their own Web browsers to place climate data on top of Microsoft’s Bing maps and visualize differences in precipitation, temperature and other climate factors.

“Say you want to look at where there were lows for the month or highs for the month,” says Wiggins. “You can put as many layers on the map as you want. You can play through it and see how it changes over the years.” Users can compare one year against another or against long-term trends.

While maps showing climate data and the results of modeling studies have been available for years, Wiggin’s visualization tools will allow users to ask questions and to create maps that show information in a clearly understandable format.

Alex Wiggins has created new data visualization tools for the Oregon Climate Service (Photo: Nick Houtman)
Alex Wiggins has created new data visualization tools for the Oregon Climate Service (Photo: Nick Houtman)

Microsoft Research and OSU have a history of collaboration, which reached a milestone in December when Mark Abbott, dean of the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences (CEAOS) received a top national award from the company for his contributions to data-intensive computing.

Yan Xu, senior research program manager at Microsoft Research, says the mapping project addresses a gap “between how scientific research is done and how technology is developed. This project really engages these two communities. That’s the value I see in this kind of collaboration. Science scenarios challenge technology, and technology advances how scientists do science.”

The Oregon Climate Service (OCS) makes climate data available from a variety of sources including the PRISM Climate Group at OSU, the Western Regional Climate Center, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network.

April 2011 precipitation data displayed through World Wide Telescope software from Microsoft Research. (Image: Alex Wiggins)

“There’s no limit when you have a system like this. The possibilities are endless,” says Kathie Dello, deputy director of the OCS. Wiggins is working with Dello; Philip Mote, OCS director; and with Mike Bailey, professor in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Mote and Dello are also affiliated with the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute.

Wiggins expects to complete his project next summer and enter a Ph.D. program in CEOAS to focus on signal processing from ocean observing systems.