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Prof predicts weather

Take one look at the office of atmospheric sciences professor Cliff Mass and you get the feeling he's a weather guy.

Colorful posters of wildflowers and the Olympic Peninsula decorate his walls. Childish drawings of rainbows and a "weather computer," a round cutout with a snowman in the center, add to the impression that this is a man who loves the sun and the rain alike.

As a result of his fascination with weather, Mass has enjoyed media attention, prestigious awards and participation in cutting edge projects.

Since his childhood in New York, Mass has been captivated by weather, especially big storms, thunderstorms and snowstorms. This passion led him to major in physics at Cornell University, where he also had the opportunity to work with well-known scientist Carl Sagan.

Mass then earned a doctoral degree in atmospheric sciences at the UW.

A Long Island native, Mass likes the variety of terrain in the Pacific Northwest.

"If I drive one hour, I can be in the snow; two hours, in the desert; in another two hours, the Pacific Ocean," said Mass, who has taught at the UW since 1981. However, his work extends beyond the classroom.

Mass has written or co-written more than 70 articles for professional journals, newsletters and CD-ROMs. He has held many leadership positions in his field, including president of the Puget Sound chapter of the American Meteorological Society and consulting editor of the Encyclopedia of Climate and Weather.

Mass also serves as the local weather guru and the UW's resident expert. He distributes information to local media, which often calls during severe weather to ask for predictions and explanations. Furthermore, he acts as the UW's very own weatherman. Every Friday on KOUW, he gives an "Atmospheric Sciences 101" lesson and a forecast.

Mass believes weather forecasting has been revolutionized by technological advances.

"Forecasting has gotten quite a bit better, although it's still not perfect," he affirmed.

The UW's forecasting system comprises several computers, which create 3-D models of the atmosphere and use these to make predictions. Using these computers, Mass and his colleagues successfully forecasted the Inauguration Day windstorm and Seattle's large snowstorm of 1996.

In the future, Mass believes humans will interpret and relay information, but computers will take over the forecasting aspect. Eventually, they may not only predict weather, but create what Mass calls an "environment prediction system," which monitors air quality, river flow, flooding and wild fires.

Right now, he focuses on specific projects as steps to his future goals.

"There are a lot of things to do," said Mass. "These things don't just happen."

He has worked on several projects that advance the collection, interpretation and practical application of data. For example, Mass and his colleagues decided to combine various observations from weather cameras and forecasts to improve transportation.

Their Web site, www.wsdot.wa.gov/Rweather/, shows different weather conditions in all areas of Washington state. It displays camera shots and overhead radar views at different highway locations, as well as construction notices, pass conditions and weather-related warnings.

On severe weather days, the Web sites may receive between 300,000 to 500,000 hits. In the future, Mass hopes to prove the correlation between heavy rain and traffic, then implement appropriate road signs that flash warnings such as, "Heavy rains ahead, slow down." He even envisions the convergence of cell phones and weather warnings.

"You can be driving around with your cell phone on, and it'll start beeping and tell you 'bad weather ahead,' 'slow down,' 'roads closed,'" Mass said.

He also maintains a ferry transportation Web site, which utilizes sensors attached to ferries to display wind direction and temperature.

In another project, Mass and his colleagues flew sensor-equipped planes into storms and clouds. The temperature sometimes dropped as low as negative 40 degrees, and the plane's windshield became covered in ice.

However, Mass was not scared; the meteorologists knew enough about severe weather to recognize how to get out of potentially dangerous situations.

Mass also helped guide the first unmanned aircraft across the Atlantic Ocean, which stands out in his mind as the most fun project of his career, and hinted at impressive possibilities for the future.

Mass also helped plan the route for the unmanned aircraft in 1998. Named Laima after the ancient Latvian goddess of good luck, the aircraft weighed 28.9 pounds and could travel up to 55 miles per hour. It carried data sensors, meteorological instruments and a global positioning system for navigation purposes.

Laima departed from Newfoundland en route to Scotland, a trip that would take 2,044 miles. Due to limited technology at the time, scientists lost contact with the aircraft for most of the trip. They were not sure when or even if the Laima would complete the journey successfully, as two prior attempts had failed.

Mass remembers sitting in his UW office when he received the phone call, informing him of Laima's successful venture. He still keeps a recording of the message.

Laima now sits in the Museum of Flight.

Ultimately, plans are underway for a new generation of unmanned planes to travel from Hawaii to the West Coast, a trip longer than the Atlantic crossing.

"Oh, I was pretty happy," Mass said.

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