Visualizing Earth's weather, climate, and other perturbations
Tim Scheitlin grew up in southeast Iowa, where gigantic thunderstorms unfold across the open landscape. "I would sit in front of the picture window facing west, watching these storms roll through. My mom and dad were always telling me to get away from that window," he recalls.
What his parents probably didn't know was that the first hints of Tim's career were unfolding along with the storms. Today, Tim is a software engineer at NCAR who creates striking computer visualizations of severe weather, climate change, wildfires, ocean temperatures, and other geoscience phenomena. Visitors to the organization's Visualization Lab can view scientifically precise, aesthetically engaging animations, displayed on a giant screen, often in 3-D, created by Tim and his colleagues.
"It's really the best of all worlds," Tim says. "I get to do computer science and weather all wrapped into one, plus the work has a visual component."
Tim develops visualizations at the request of NCAR scientists who want to view data in visual formats for analysis or create illustrations for publication. One of his most complex creations is an animated model of a large storm, a coastal cyclone that struck East Asia in 1993, causing severe weather and damage in China, Korea, and Japan. A still image of the highly intricate animation was reproduced in a two-page spread in Scientific American in spring of 2000.
Another notable visualization was created to study Typhoon Herb, a storm that caused high winds, floods, and landslides in northern Taiwan in 1996. Working closely with several scientists, Tim created two visualizations of the storm: one based on observations collected during the storm with weather instruments, and a second based on data created by running a computer weather model. "This let us do a side-by-side visual comparison between observed data and model data," Tim explains. "The storm tracks and their rotations were almost identical in both cases, illustrating that the model and observed data compared very favorably."
The latest visualizations, including simulations performed on NCAR's Yellowstone supercomputer, are posted to the VisLab's YouTube channel.
Tim and his colleagues use a 3-D software program called Vis5D to create most of the visualizations, as well as NCAR Command Language, a computer language designed for scientific data processing and visualization. When necessary, Tim writes code himself.
"One of the most rewarding things about this job is taking scientific data which is very cut and dry and making it visually interesting while at the same time preserving scientific accuracy," he says. "It takes some artistic creativity to do that."
His biggest challenge is the ever-increasing size of data sets. "It used to be that a gigabyte data set seemed huge, and now that's a tiny data set. The data just keep getting more and more voluminous," he says.
Tim especially appreciates the opportunity to collaborate with researchers from across the organization who focus on different aspects of atmospheric science. "When I'm working with scientists, they're always teaching me," he says. "I learn about things such as global warming and solar magnetic eruptions that I never would have known about without this job."
Tim also interacts with the variety of visitors who come to the Visualization Lab to learn more about atmospheric science, including researchers, schoolchildren, politicians, policymakers, journalists, and foreign ambassadors. "It's rewarding to know I'm contributing to knowledge and understanding of geoscience and helping policymakers make better-informed decisions," he says.
The road to NCAR was indirect for Tim. His fascination with storms as a child nudged him toward meteorology when choosing a major at Iowa State University. "I enjoyed meteorology courses but was torn because I liked computers, too. I didn't even know what scientific visualization or weather modeling were back then," he recalls.
The turning point came when he entered some of the university's weather forecasting contests for meteorology majors. "We'd try to forecast the weather for several cities and I was always dead last," he chuckles. "It was discouraging and I thought that maybe meteorology really wasn't for me."
He majored in computer science instead. Summer internships with Cray Research in Minneapolis–St. Paul convinced him that he was on the right track. After graduation, he worked for Hewlett-Packard as a software engineer in Fort Collins, Colorado, for a few years.
But he'd always been a very visual person and had a talent for photography, so he began taking coursework toward a graduate degree in journalism at the University of Colorado in Boulder, with an eye toward eventually working as a photojournalist.
While studying in Boulder, he began a student internship at NCAR, helping to develop a software package called OceanVu for visualizing ocean data. "That's when I first learned about scientific visualization. I was taking courses in journalism and enjoying them, but all of a sudden this whole new world opened up," he says.
When his part-time job led to a full-time position at NCAR, working with graphics in what was then called the Scientific Computing Division (now the Computational and Information Systems Lab, or CISL), Tim decided to abandon the quest for a journalism degree, although he's still an avid photographer. He's been at NCAR for 23 years now and became assistant manager of the Visualization and Enabling Technologies Section in 2003.
Looking down the road, Tim is excited to explore new visualization technologies currently under development, particularly as techniques are unveiled that allow users to interact with data. The concept of "augmented reality" is poised to revolutionize visualizations by overlaying computer-generated graphics onto real images. Users will be able to look through specialized glasses at real-world images such as clouds or landscapes that have educational and informative text and graphics overlaying them.
"I can imagine someday, for example, watching a thunderstorm roll in across Boulder and at the same time seeing weather map information overlaid with animated arrows depicting wind gusts, or colored contours showing the areas of heaviest rainfall," Tim predicts.
Tim especially enjoys working in a research setting. "At a place like NCAR, you get to build up knowledge and learn new things, and you're working with world-renowned researchers and people who are leaders in their fields," he says. "I feel very fortunate to be able to work at NCAR with so many bright and talented people."
by Nicole Gordon
May 2006, updated November 2012