Days after the September 2001 terrorist attacks, members of Dr. Sethu Raman’s staff in the North Carolina State Climate Office were in Lower Manhattan to measure the dispersal of the pollution created by the disaster. They used tools that could one day help emergency management officials minimize the effects of another attack.
Raman is North Carolina’s state climatologist and a professor of marine and atmospheric sciences in NC State’s College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences. He and his colleagues use high-resolution computer models to predict the diffusion of particles in the air by analyzing weather data like wind speed and direction, temperature, and rainfall. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency asked Raman to monitor the air near Ground Zero in the aftermath of 9/11.
“It was hard, with everything else going on there, but we had to focus on our work,” he says. Readings gathered over four months from a ten-meter tower loaded with sensors traced the plume of dust and other debris stirred up by the collapse of the World Trade Center towers as it spread over Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island.
Similar automated stations are being tied together across North Carolina into the Environment and Climate Observing Network, or NC ECONet, to provide real-time data on details like winds, temperatures, and air pressure. Combining the information with Raman’s computer model could predict the spread of airborne contaminants during a terrorist attack, which would help officials target areas for evacuation. “Issues like the changes in wind speed and direction are important in homeland security applications,” Raman says.
Likewise, plant pathology professor emeritus Dr. Charles Main says a system developed to track tobacco blue mold and other plant diseases could be used not only to forecast the spread of airborne pathogens, but also to help investigators pinpoint the origin of an existing contamination. “You have to run different scenarios in order to test your response system, and we can help set up those scenarios,” Main says, noting that Defense Department officials have already talked to him about using his system to guard against bioterrorism.
The North American Plant Disease Forecast Center he runs at NC State has been providing daily updates for the past eight years to farmers across the Southeast about the likelihood of blue mold infections in their areas. Because the airborne mold spores are killed by excessive sunshine, center forecaster Thomas Keever examines wind, cloud, and precipitation information to develop two- to three-day risk analyses so farmers can inoculate their crop against the fungus.
The forecast system also has been used to warn against the spread of mountain cedar pollen in Texas and downy mildew, a fungus that infects cucumbers, melons, and squash nationwide. Main’s team is now working on the latest threat: soybean rust, a disease that has devastated soybean crops from Asia to Brazil. “The country has been preparing for a soybean rust epidemic for so long, the planning is basically a dry run for an agricultural bioterror attack,” he says.
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