Sensors May Track Terror's Fallout
- Some of you may have already seen this, but I thought it was an interesting example of "deja vu".....
Sensors May Track Terror's Fallout
Region Gets First Fallout Sensors
By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 2, 2003; Page A01
In preparation for a terrorist attack, federal scientists have installed sensors to map wind currents in downtown Washington, Arlington and Silver Spring, the first deployment of a high-tech network to help predict the airborne path of a chemical, biological or radioactive release.
A half-dozen aluminum weather towers, each 30 feet tall, have been installed atop government buildings in what officials describe as the most comprehensive wind analysis attempted in any U.S. city. With more towers planned, the sensors are being positioned near sensitive sites -- including Capitol Hill, the White House, the Pentagon, the Mall, the National Zoo and the National Arboretum -- and on cellular relay towers within the Capital Beltway.
The goal is to forecast how urban "wind fields" might disperse fallout from a weapon of mass destruction. The ultrasonic sensors sample the wind 10 times a second, with the data downloaded every 15 minutes and available to emergency planners and scientists nationwide.
Government-threat analysts repeatedly have warned of the potential use of unconventional weapons such as a radiological device, or "dirty bomb," against populated areas. But until now, tools precise enough to help officials respond to a local atmospheric release have remained rudimentary, two federal scientific panels concluded.
"The Washington exercise is seen as a prototype of what could eventually be a nationwide program," said Bruce B. Hicks, who heads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's air resources laboratory, which created the system, called DCNet. "The system now in place offers this area an unparalleled capability to plan for possible attacks and to respond if one were to occur."
A small team of federal researchers, based in Silver Spring and Oak Ridge, Tenn., operates the $500,000 network. Separately, as part of a $3 million program called SensorNet, the U.S. Department of Energy has added gamma-radiation detectors to the towers, testing the feasibility of their use in thwarting a radiological attack.
In NOAA's experiment, researchers began making the eight-hour drive from their Tennessee laboratory to Washington in April 2002, gaining approvals and installing the towers at strategic sites. One tower, visible from the State Department, sits tridentlike atop the National Academy of Sciences Building on Constitution Avenue near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The system also includes two sites in Manhattan -- Times Square and a federal building in Greenwich Village.
Each cellular-modem-equipped spire uses sound waves emitted from three prongs to get precise readings of wind speed and direction. Wind, or the lack of it, speeds up or slows down the ultrasonic chirp.
Those lags or accelerations are timed and beamed to Internet sites maintained by NOAA in Tennessee. Loaded into a computer there, the data are turned into wind maps posted within 15 minutes, faster in case of an emergency. In that instance, a computer model could generate a plume in red, orange and yellow blobs, with each widening ring denoting the probability of hazardous exposure over a four-mile-by-four-mile grid.
Will Pendergrass, the meteorologist in charge, said field engineer Randy White and systems specialist Ed Dumas were surprised at an early finding of their work. New stations detected a large wind-direction difference, or bias, between downtown Washington and Reagan National Airport, which is the official source of weather information for the capital.
Twelve months of readings found that airport winds generally flow up and down the Potomac River, while readings downtown consistently "vary from that by 40 to 90 degrees," Pendergrass said: "If you used the airport data, you have a really good chance of having a forecast plume go in the wrong direction."
D.C. emergency managers who would be responsible for recommending an evacuation are closely monitoring results with the Energy Department's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the National Weather Service and about 30 government and university researchers.
"Clearly, if we're receiving data from National Airport, and they're 90 degrees wrong, we would be notifying people 90 degrees in the wrong direction that they would be at risk," said Ned Ingraham, acting chief information officer for Washington, whose office is working with NOAA.
To be sure, the work faces technical and cost barriers. DCNet's builders have asked the Department of Homeland Security for $2 million to $10 million to build out a system of 75 to 175 towers throughout the Washington-Baltimore area and are awaiting a reply. The system is already producing data. Without more money, however, detailed analysis and the improvement of existing models will take years.
Government officials familiar with the project said that the Homeland Security agency has been briefed about plume modeling and that the proposal is one of many being considered for funding.
Federal and independent scientists and local emergency officials say further research is vital. In the Department of Homeland Security's recently concluded dirty-bomb response exercise in Seattle, planners assumed that it would take authorities more than an hour to learn that 4,000 people lived or worked in the most intensely radiated area.
"It's one thing to have the plume model, but you need to be able to interpret it very quickly. What does that mean in terms of where the greatest risk is, and which areas people ought to shelter in place?" said Marianne Bichsel, a spokeswoman for Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels (D). "Getting as accurate information as you can quickly is, of course, vital."
During the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, the Pentagon tested a separate detection and forecasting defense system. And next month, the military's Defense Threat Reduction Agency and the Department of Energy plan to deploy tracer gases and advanced weather radar in Oklahoma City, in another short-term test of scenarios involving deadly particles sown into the wind.
Such studies reflect growing concern among researchers that Cold War-era studies they have relied on were premised on huge events -- such as a nuclear blast scattering fallout over thousands of square miles -- or flat battlefield terrain, such as the Army's Dugway Proving Ground in the Utah desert. When it comes to tracing the release of a dirty bomb, nerve gas or biohazard in the complex swirls and eddies of a U.S. city streetscape, emergency responders face uncharted territory.
"In the Cold War, we plotted the course of ballistic missiles. In the war against weapons of mass destruction, we need to be able to predict the path of toxic clouds across new battlefields abroad and here at home," said Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), chairman of the House Government Reform subcommittee on national security, emerging threats and international relations.
Today, Shays's panel is to release a report by the National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council that concludes that the federal government's response to a "critical national security concern" requires greater coordination and research. The council recommends that the government fund a fully operational wind-tracking system in one American city, probably Washington, where sensors are in place and the threat is perceived as high.
The scientific group agreed with a study led last year by Samuel P. Williamson, the Commerce Department's federal coordinator for meteorology, which concluded that too many federal agencies offer too many models, designed for too many purposes, with too little regard for how a mayor or governor could use them in an emergency.
Eric J. Barron, dean of Pennsylvania State University's College of Earth and Mineral Sciences and chairman of the National Research Council study, said the government must assess the effectiveness and limits of forecasting tools, then test them with the rescue agencies that first respond to emergencies.
The result could save lives, Barron said, and prove beneficial in other fields, such as industrial accidents, air pollution studies, even snow forecasting.
"Simple plume models are not sufficient for tracking dispersion in a dense urban area," said Environmental Protection Agency scientist Alan Huber, who was studying air pollution flows in lower Manhattan in 2001 when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks redirected his research. "It is important to do routine meteorological observations and modeling in major cities . . . before an emergency event occurs."
© 2003 The Washington Post Company
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