UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Barbara DeClerck knows which way the wind blows. A meteorologist with the National Weather Service, DeClerck provides daily wind forecasts to help airplanes land on time at one of the busiest airports in the world.
DeClerck spent her summer working on a model that she hopes could help improve those forecasts as part of her capstone experience for the Graduate Certificate in Weather and Climate Analytics, offered online through Penn State World Campus.
The program, led by faculty from Penn State's Department of Meteorology and Atmospheric Science and the John A. Dutton e-Education Institute, aims to help students tap into the wealth of real-time and historical weather data available today and to develop analytical tools they can use to answer scientific questions.
“It was an incredible learning experience for me,” said DeClerck, who is one of the first students to complete the certificate. “I’ve learned a lot about meteorology all over again. And I’ve gained a better understanding of the statistics I encountered in class oh so many years ago by applying statistics to something that’s real.”
The Memphis International Airport is home to FedEx’s global hub and handled more cargo than any airport in the world in the first quarter of 2020. Twice a day, 200 airplanes land in a two-hour window, unload, and take off again.
Changes in the wind can cause airplanes circling and waiting to land to become too close, or too far apart, potentially causing costly delays. Information DeClerck provides to air traffic controllers helps them better choreograph the complicated dance.
Through her work at Penn State, DeClerck developed a model that automates the process of gathering wind data information and compares it with other climatological data. She said the model could provide a more consistent starting point in creating forecasts and could give meteorologists more time to focus on bad weather during storm events.
“If it weren’t for the fact that I’ve been doing all these kinds of models over the last two years through my course work, I probably wouldn’t understand a lot about what the models I work with actually do,” she said. “I struggled with the computer programming, honestly. It was a whole new language for me to learn, and I’m still learning. But I’ve gotten smarter about how I do things.”
Increasingly, industries like energy, agriculture, insurance, construction, retail, and transportation are using weather and climate data in decision-making processes as they seek to minimize uncertainty caused by weather hazards.
“Weather affects everything, and the people who come to us are working in weather-impacted sectors,” said David Babb, an associate teaching professor in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences and lead instructor of the program. “Our students are all doing interesting things, and it just scratches the surface of the what we can do with weather data.”
The first student to receive the certificate, Jessica Levine, helped test instruments on the next-generation U.S. weather satellite — GOES-17 — before its launch in March 2018. She now works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration analyzing images and other information from the satellite to help monitor things like hurricanes, wildfires, volcanic eruptions, and thunderstorms.
Despite a busy work schedule, Levine wanted to further her education and said the weather and climate analytics program offered valuable flexibility.
“I wanted to get my feet wet, and once I got hooked into this program, it was so flexible that it fit into my ever-changing shift schedule,” she said. “I didn’t feel like I had to have Tuesday off at noon to go to class for two hours.”
Inspired by devastating floods in Ellicott City, Maryland, in 2016 and 2018, Levine used her capstone experience to develop a model that incorporates current and historical weather data to inform stakeholders when floods may occur elsewhere in the country.
“Analytics is something that intimidated me from the outside with little experience,” Levine said. “But this was a great way to get to know it and learn it. And this is the direction our field is moving in, especially when we are talking about our changing climate.”