OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Climate service branches out to push map expertise

12/23/1999

CORVALLIS, Ore. - After creating some of the most sophisticated, accurate precipitation maps in the world, Oregon State University faculty members George Taylor and Chris Daly discovered there was a growing interest in such maps, and a variety of applications for the technology.

So they've decided to branch out.

The Oregon Climate Service, headquartered at OSU, has developed a spin-off organization called the Spatial Climate Analysis Service that will focus on making maps, said Taylor, the state climatologist. Daly will serve as the first director.

"The PRISM technology used to create our state precipitation maps can be used in a variety of different ways," Taylor said, "with applications of interest to state and federal agencies, the private sector and the military, as well as other nations."

PRISM uses not only data from rain gauges in the creating of precipitation maps, but information based on the region's terrain, including elevation, rain shadows, temperature inversions, and the influence of the coast. The technology is opening new doors for the OSU researchers.

One project that already has found success has been a collaborative effort between OSU, the Oregon Seed Council, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to market Oregon grass seed to China. China would like to grow more grass to boost its turf production, create forage for livestock, and to help control erosion from flooding rivers, particularly in the Three Gorges area.

It was thought that most of the areas suitable for growing tall fescue - an Oregon grass that grows well in a variety of climates - would already be in production with other crops, or would be too hot or dry for production. Enter OSU's Spatial Climate Analysis Service.

"We created a PRISM map of places where tall fescue would grow, using data from Chinese weather stations, and information about soil and the grass seed, then supplementing that with what we know about the effects of elevation and terrain on the climate," Daly said. "It turns out there China has many more areas that are well-adapted for growing tall fescue than they anticipated.

"They had assumed that certain places like Nanchang were too hot, but because of the elevation, tall fescue would do well on the mountain slopes," he added. "The grass seed people were really excited about what the mapping technology can do."

The new OSU program also has a contract with the National Climatic Data Center to produce as many as 300 new maps that will comprise about 90 percent of the center's new atlas. It will be the first atlas the national center has produced since 1968.

The OSU researchers also are working with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology to create the first detailed, comprehensive climate map of the European Alps. Getting climatic data sets from other countries can be difficult, Daly said.

"Whereas China was worried about security, the European countries are in it for money," Daly said. "It costs tens of thousands of dollars for some data sets that are available free on the Internet in the U.S. With the Alps project, (the Swiss institute) finally got the data for 18 months, then has to destroy it."

U.S. military leaders saw the early iteration of the Alps map and were intrigued with the possibility of creating more accurate precipitation maps that look at seasonal, even daily, variations, instead of generic annual rainfall.

"There are a lot of decisions that a lot of different organizations have to make that are based on having accurate climate information," Taylor said. "What we're doing is revolutionizing the creation of maps based on climate.

"Right now, we essentially have a corner on the market."