The weather. In Oklahoma, as elsewhere, is a conversation starter, an ever-changing and wondrous phenomena, and a major factor in virtually all commerce, from transportation to communication to insurance.

Weather is featured in the folklore of every country on Earth, and the subject of memorable quotes by countless authors both famous and obscure. Three favorites:

“Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” – Charles Dudley Warner

Oklahoma’s favorite son, Will Rogers, is the author of the other two: “Climate is what we expect, weather is what we get” and “If you don’t like the weather in Oklahoma, wait a minute and it’ll change.”

In Norman, as in the rest of the state – tucked into the so-called Tornado Alley – weather is far more than a conversation starter. Especially in the spring, it’s a dangerous force to be reckoned with, though Oklahomans are no stranger to other weather-related threats – lightning, flash floods, hail, damaging straight winds, drought, ice, and even “polar quakes.”

In part because of these diverse and often life- and property-damaging weather phenomena, along with the presence of a major research university with a strong meteorology school and other weather-related programs, Norman has become a major hub of weather-related research and industry in the nation.

OU has long been nationally, and even internationally, recognized for its meteorology school. The largest such program in the nation, with more than 300 undergraduate and 110 graduate students, it is ranked in the top 10 of all atmospheric sciences graduate programs in the nation by the Chronicle of Higher Education. The Chronicle also listed the OU School of Meteorology at or near the top in severe storms, radar and mesoscale research.

With the growth of OU’s Research Campus over the past decade, OU has been able to further expand its meteorology and other weather-related research endeavors and also attract federal and private partners, most notably the National Weather Center. Opened in 2006, the NWC is one of the largest facilities of its kind in the world, and houses OU, state and federal organizations. (See sidebar for a listing of weather-related facilities on the OU Research Campus.)

The latest facility dedicated to weather-related research to be added is the Radar Innovations Lab. Dedicated in October, the $15 million, 35,000-square-foot Radar Innovations Laboratory is now home to 60-plus students and 20 faculty from the Advanced Radar Research Center – along with their external partners – who are working together on cutting-edge next-generation radar, microwave electronics and related technologies.

Robert Palmer, associate vice president for research on the OU Norman campus, who also serves as executive director of the Advanced Radar Research Center and holds the title of Tommy C. Craighead Chair and professor of meteorology, noted that the weather program also was important at the University of Nebraska, where he served on the faculty before coming to OU, “but not like here. It really dominates at OU, as well as Norman,” he said.

He credits Yoshi Sasaki, George Lynn Cross Professor Emeritus, with being an early mover and shaker, both in growing OU’s meteorology program and in relocating weather-related businesses to Norman.

Sasaki, who died in March, heavily recruited faculty to OU’s School of Meteorology; served as director of the Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies, an organization that links the university with NOAA; founded the Sasaki Institute; and was responsible for bringing the Japan-based WeatherNews to Norman. WeatherNews, the world’s largest private weather service company, offers a full range of weather content services, including forecasting for cargo ships around the world.

Palmer said OU students and faculty benefit immensely from the influx of federal and private weather entities to the Research Campus, and conversely, those entities benefit from their location on the Norman campus.

They offer students and faculty expanded opportunities for research, work on projects with real-world applications, and other collaborative efforts, while the businesses benefit from a ready source of skilled employees.

“We have created a unique niche in Norman,” he said, noting that in addition to its reputation for weather-related research and jobs, it also is becoming a mecca for radar research and other radar-related enterprises.

Don Wood, executive director of the Norman Economic Development Coalition, agrees. “Norman is very unique, the only, what is considered weather cluster, in the United States,” he said. “That means you have a complete spectrum of weather companies in a single location — so much so that if you want to be in the weather business, you have to consider being in Norman, Oklahoma, where you can be with similar-minded people, where you find a steady flow of new people who can go to work for you. And OU has the largest meteorology program in the world to supply it.”

Meteorologists and others employed in the weather industry, he said, who choose Norman as their home will find multiple employment choices, allowing for upward mobility in their career, whereas in other communities, they might have only one or two places to work.

He also foresees Norman as becoming a hub for radar research, and possibly the manufacture of these high-tech tools in the near future.

John Woods, president and CEO, Norman Chamber of Commerce, added, “When we look at the industry drivers, there’s no question the weather industry is the industry leader in the city. It comes down being to a great intersection of industry, research and the private sector, together driving research and job creation.

“The National Weather Center and other federal partners, together with private companies, have found a great niche here in research and technology sharing.”

This unique university-federal-private partnership, or collaboration, offers a payoff that is global in nature, Woods said, pointing as example to developments in early storm-warning detection, which helps save lives and property, as well as other weather and climate studies. He notes that this technology is used by insurance companies and the agricultural, transportation and communications industries, just to name a few.

“It’s great for a community to have a reputation like this, to be talked about nationally and internationally … Norman is often mentioned for its weather research and technologies. It opens doors for people to learn more about OU and Norman. And of course, it [weather research] is a great provider of high-paying jobs, and so, is good for economy.

“This is an industry,” he concluded, “with remarkable applications that are beneficial to our economy, lives and property. It is the best of every world.”

SIDEBAR 1

Weather-related Offices on the OU Research Campus

(with approximate number of employees)

National Weather Center (NOAA employees) —200

National Weather Center (OU employees only) – 300

Radar Innovations Lab — 20

WeatherNews (Private) – 60

Enterprise Electronic Corp. (Private) — 4

National Weather Association (Private) — 3

Atmospheric Technology Services Company (Private) — 10

Weather Decision Technologies (Private) — 90  

South Central Climate Science Center —6

Vieux and Associates (Private) — 9

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