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Erik Kabela: Whether the weather is a national security concern

Erik Kabela, in red, demonstrates the wind cube, a piece of equipment that uses light to read weather data. Credit: Carlos Jones/ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy

Erik Kabela can’t control the weather, but that doesn’t stop people from asking him to. As a meteorologist supporting Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s national security research, he is keenly aware of how weather impacts decisions and outcomes — from clothing choices to military maneuvers to the dispersal of dangerous substances released to the air.

“If material is released into the atmosphere, we know how wind and turbulence will move it,” Kabela said. “What we don’t understand is what happens to the material itself as it moves through the air.”

His current research looks at how temperature, relative humidity, pressure and wind direction change the material as it travels through the atmosphere. That information will help guide emergency response, a key component of national security.

“When you think of national security, you don't necessarily think of meteorology,” Kabela said. “Simply put, measurements from weather equipment help assess how best to protect people based on future predictions.”

Kabela also helps colleagues working on field experiments understand climate conditions; after all, researchers need more than an online weather report to determine where and when to conduct their work. As a safety precaution, Kabela briefs his colleagues — complete with a radio-style weather person voice — on what to expect.

Data collection and modeling help Kabela guide decisions-makers. He is working on a project that uses weather radar to track and characterize plumes, such as those from wildfires or released materials, and feeds that data into transport dispersion models.

Equipment to gather weather data is crucial to Kabela’s work. He uses a weather station similar to those at airports or along highways for general information, and he favors a wind cube that uses a light beam to measure wind speed, direction and turbulence. In addition, his team has developed a mechanism to remotely adjust several pieces of equipment in real time as they gather information. For the future, he is looking to use drones as remote collection platforms for large field operations.  

The need for meteorology is expanding in national security science. This year, a second meteorologist will join Kabela’s team — one who specializes in atmospheric transport and dispersion. If a plume of material is detected, a meteorologist can use weather model data coupled with meteorological measurements to determine how the material moves through the air and work backwards to locate the source.

Kabela’s unique career in weather forecasting helps him shed light on areas such as human security and nuclear nonproliferation. “Every piece in national security is important, and meteorology is one of those pieces that help put the entire picture together,” Kabela said.

Just don’t ask him to make it stop raining.

UT-Battelle manages ORNL for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. The Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit — Liz Neunsinger