NSF challenges Cornell to tame winter, natural disasters

Partnering with community organizations, Cornell researchers are developing and planning a hyperlocal weather forecasting system designed to improve winter-storm emergency response and enhance natural disaster coordination for New York state’s rural communities.

Max Zhang, professor in Cornell’s Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, will lead the federally funded effort this spring.

The work is part of the new Civic Innovation Challenge, announced Feb. 17, an $11 million effort led by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy and U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The four-month challenge seeks to empower communities to achieve necessary local weather and disaster solutions, so that one day such plans may be scaled up regionally or nationally.

Cornell impacting New York State

“In case of a winter storm or other kind of natural disaster, there is a suite of actions that must be prioritized,” Zhang said. “As upstate towns usually have a limited budget, we’re tying together technology and actions plans.”

For example: “Information is critical for the highway departments to decide where to send the plows and salt trucks first, and decide the correct priority of actions,” he said. “We aim to develop a transferrable priority-action model for all of New York and then perhaps to the rest of the U.S. through the national cooperative extension network.”

The Cornell group is among 52 teams across the United States awarded $50,000 to participate in the Civic Innovation Challenge as Stage 1 awardees. If projects move on to Stage 2 later this spring, each of those teams will receive a $1 million grant for further development.

“This competition’s inclusion of civic and community partners, coupled with an aggressive and fast-paced timeline, empowers awardees to bridge the gap between research and impact [in communities] in a unique and compelling way,” said Margaret Martonosi, NSF assistant director for Computer and Information Science and Engineering. “We’re eager to see the projects develop, the teams strengthen, and a national community emerge around the common goal of innovative local solutions over the course of the competition.”

The Cornell team brings together the following investigators:

  • Bharath Hariharan, assistant professor of computer science;
  • Keith Tidball, senior extension associate, natural resources; and the assistant director of Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE);
  • Toby Ault, associate professor, earth and atmospheric sciences;
  • Art DeGaetano, professor, earth and atmospheric sciences;
  • Kenneth Schlather, executive director, CCE-Tompkins County;
  • David Orr, PE, senior extension associate, biological and environmental engineering, and director of the Cornell Local Roads Program; and
  • Jerald Brotzge, program manager, New York State Mesonet, University at Albany, State University of New York.

Zhang said his group will be partnering with civic and community partners across New York, attempting several innovations integrating computer vision, numerical weather forecasting and Internet of Things-based sensing packages.

The state community partner organizations are New York Farm Bureau, New York State County Highway Superintendents Association, New York State Association of Town Superintendents of Highways, New York State Department of Transportation, New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, and the Extension Disaster Education Network.

Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability Academic Venture Fund grants and a grant from the Cornell Institute for Digital Agriculture contributed to this effort.

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Lindsey Knewstub