When the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk opened in late August, Penn State’s department of meteorology accomplished a goal it had been working on for more than a decade.
The center’s purpose is to minimize the risk that weather and climate pose to business, government and society, primarily by educating students to use the technology the center has, its new director, David Titley, said.
“I like to say we’re counting the cards in Mother Nature’s casino,” Titley said. “We have great weather prediction capabilities; now we’re working on using it to help people make decisions.”
Bill Brune, the head of the meteorology department for 15 years, said it took more than a decade to get together all the necessary pieces of the center, including the weather prediction technology and funding.
“The hardest piece in putting the center together was finding the right person to run the center,” Brune said. “Dr. David Titley served on an external advisory board for the meteorology department, and he is a perfect fit. He’s a natural leader, he has great connections, and he understands how weather and society interact.”
Titley is a retired rear admiral who served in the Navy for 32 years. After serving 10 years at sea as a navigator and oceanographer, he commanded the Fleet Numerical Meteorological and Oceanographic Center and was the first commanding officer of the Naval Oceanography Operations Command. He received his bachelor’s degree in meteorology from Penn State and his doctorate in meteorology from the Naval Postgraduate School.
“We want to train students to make better decisions faster,” said Titley. “This is more than just training students how to read the climate; this is training them so they can read the climate and then advise (their employer) about the best course of action. Establishing this gives Penn State’s meteorology department a competitive advantage.”
“The combination of weather, climate and decision-making is the new major direction in meteorology,” Brune said. “Jobs in the weather service alone are shrinking. Private-sector businesses are increasingly hiring weather professionals.
“We want to teach our students how to help a company predict how the weather can affect their business and then be able to tell them the best course of action. We’re working on making sure our students will get employed in these emerging fields by keeping our department on the forefront.”
The only staff unique to the center is Titley, but he said a number of the department’s faculty are working closely with him, and he said faculty in the colleges of engineering and science are interested in participating.
The center is working with similar weather risk centers at other colleges, in particular at Columbia and Princeton, to examine how to best sell their services to the private sector, according to Titley. Startup funding was provided by the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences and the department, and there is a $4 million fundraising goal.
“The long-term vision of the center is a mixture of the $4 million endowment, with additional contributions for services and membership by the private sector, foundations, government grants and services,” Titley said.
He offered an example of how the center’s work could be applied in an emergency.
“If there’s a hurricane coming in, using our technology we can tell where the worst damage will most likely be so health professionals can focus their efforts there,” he said. “The technology would allow emergency organizations to adjust their strategy and most effectively respond to the situation.”
The work will be similar to what Titley did in the Navy. In 2005, there was an increase in piracy off the coast of Somalia. Many international organizations, like the United Nations, and navies around the world were concerned about the risk to shipping in the area.
“Through weather technology similar to what the center has, the United States Navy was able to figure out what conditions the pirates would attack in,” he said. “We made the business model of piracy. For example, we knew that if wave levels got above a certain height, the pirates would not be able to attack ships. Through what we found, we could predict with varying levels of confidence what routes were safest depending on the weather conditions.”
Varying levels of confidence is a theme whenever climate is involved, according to Titley. “No matter how sophisticated our models are, they’re just that — models,” he said. “We can predict things with a very high confidence, but never with certainty.”