Dev Thimmisetty
Mercury Staff

New fixture to allow UTD to anticipate storms, prepare for emergencies

UTD recently installed a new weather station, called
WeatherSTEM, on the roof of Residence Hall West to monitor weather conditions
near campus.

A website, dubbed “Comet Watch,” provides students with
up-to-date weather information as well as real-time camera feeds. Twitter and
Facebook feeds disperse selected information from “Comet Watch” on social
media. Emergency management specialist Angela Dees said the previous weather
station was lacking, so the department had been looking for an upgrade.

“We had a very basic weather station. (Its) information
wasn’t shared as widely,” Dees said. “The timing was right with regards to
funding and the appropriate vendor, so we went with a commercial instrument
that is valid and trusted.”

Dees said the cost of the WeatherSTEM station was nominal
and would not affect students’ tuition rates.

One of the new features of the WeatherSTEM station is the
ZapMap, which tracks lightning strikes within 10 seconds in up to a 15-mile
radius. The system is now set up to notify campus workers about potential
hazardous lightning strikes if they’re working outside.

“We’ve started reaching out to different stakeholders across
campus to see if they would like to be a part of this project,” Dees said.

Mariah Armitage, the director of emergency management and
continuity planning, said students can see the ZapMap on the official website
of the WeatherSTEM station, but as of right now, notifications won’t be sent to
students’ phones.

“Because lightning strikes so often and so fast, you would
get too many notifications … to send out to campus life,” Armitage said.

On the other hand, the weather station’s Facebook and
Twitter feeds make frequent updates, sometimes every hour. In addition to
regular forecasts and inclement weather warnings, the social media channels
include lifestyle forecasts to let students know how concerned they should be
about frizzy hair or mosquito activity. Armitage said the WeatherSTEM station
helps the university plan more effectively.

“Our department works hard to prepare for emergency
situations and return the university back to health in those situations,”
Armitage said. “This data helps us get more information, and it helps us get it
more accurately, specifically for our campus, not the city of Dallas or the
metroplex.”

The station itself is comprised of specific measuring
instruments such as an anemometer, a thermometer and a rain gauge that sends
recorded data to an electronic interface which publishes the information.

In addition to the weather station at Residence Hall West,
the university also installed four new weather cameras on other buildings. Dees
said the locations of the cameras at Residence Hall South, the Natural Sciences
and Engineering Research Lab and Canyon Creek Heights were chosen
strategically.

“Usually when storms come in, they come in from the west.
When that happens, we want a camera facing the western point,” Dees said. “The
cameras help because let’s say if we have a tornado warning, we can see the
wall cloud. Students can also check the cameras from the website.”

The National Weather Service has recognized UTD’s
WeatherSTEM station as an official source of information. The qualifications
for this achievement had to do with the personnel as well as the equipment,
Armitage said.

“(We) … are official weather spotters, and we all took
training for that,” Armitage said. “This is also coming from a valid vendor,
and they take that seriously. We can coordinate and communicate with them …
(to) produce warnings based on what they observe from our system.”

Armitage said various departments pooled their efforts to
install the new weather station. Student Affairs and Facilities Management
helped to physically set up the station and the cameras, and the Office of
Information Technology made sure all the data was syncing properly.

“This type of work has an immediate impact,” Armitage said.
“Just knowing that you’re making that difference in somebody’s life … is very
rewarding.”