National Science Foundation funds project to improve weather forecasts for cities

by Lisa Sheppard, Prairie Research Institute

Scientists at the Illinois State Water Survey (ISWS) have begun a new project that will ultimately improve weather forecasting of severe storms and heatwaves in cities across the US.

In the three-year project with a budget of over $850,000 from the National Science Foundation (NSF), ISWS will focus on improving weather forecasts for the Chicago, New York, and Denver metro areas using observations from space and from the ground combined with numerical model development. The goal is to study the chemistry, atmosphere, and human adaptive choices that influence storms and heatwaves over cities.

“We’ve long realized there is a gap in the fundamental knowledge of urban weather and climate processes, as well as our inability to accurately capture the magnitude, intensity, and locations where severe storms and heatwaves occur,” said research climatologist and principal investigator Ashish Sharma. “Weather forecasts can see where storms will occur, but we need to use improved models to understand storms in a better way.”

These gaps can be addressed by developing integrated weather and chemistry models for urban areas through new model development activities and using a suite of observations from the ground and satellites.

“We are thrilled that NSF has supported ISWS to lead cutting-edge fundamental and applied research in urban climate modeling,” said Kevin OBrien, director of ISWS. “This is a great example of how ISWS is taking a deeper dive into how we can make cities more resilient to climate change impacts.”

For this study, the Integrated Urban Climate Research group, led by Sharma, will analyze the contribution of urban surface heat emissions and pollutants to storms and heatwaves, examine the effects of the interaction between the atmosphere and complex urban land surface characteristics, and study the impacts of future urban development and green infrastructure interventions. Strengthening our capabilities and advancing our knowledge in integrated urban modeling will likely improve weather forecasting capabilities for cities.

“This will be the first model development effort to include chemistry-weather interactions in urban climate models. The more realistic that models are, the more accurate they are in simulating extreme weather,” said Sharma.

The project will help city managers and stakeholders to assess environmental risks and vulnerabilities and identify where and which infrastructure choices, such as green, cool, or photovoltaic roofs, are best suited to reduce environmental, social, and health inequities in cities.  

“Outputs from the project will help urban planners and practitioners make decisions that can protect vulnerable communities and restore environmental justice in the Chicago metro area,” said Edith Makra, director of environmental initiatives and the project collaborator at the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus. “Urban solutions require money and manpower, so it takes a coordinated effort from scientists and community representatives from different disciplines to solve these types of problems.”

The project team will coordinate with the Chicago National Weather Service to determine how the model enhancements and new developments can help improve weather forecasting and climate change projections for urban communities. At the end of the study, the team will be able to recommend resilient environmental mitigation solutions to the three metro areas. They will also continue to partner with municipalities, agencies, and institutions in the Chicago, Denver, and New York metro areas to share study findings.

The project includes co-principal investigators at the University of Illinois and University of Notre Dame and collaborators at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder and NASA.

Media contact: Ashish Sharma, 217-300-8423,

This story originally appeared on the Prairie Research Institute News Blog. Read the original story.

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