SWIRL at UAH could be a game-changer in severe weather research

An artist’s rendering of the proposed SWIRL building at UAH. The SWIRL (Severe Weather Institute and Research Laboratory) is expected to raise the school’s profile as a leader in severe weather research. (Submitted photo)

HUNTSVILLE, Alabama — The SWIRL building first came to life in the imagination of University of Alabama in Huntsville professor Kevin Knupp.

Well, at least the acronym did.

SWIRL, which stands for Severe Weather Institute and Research Laboratory, is a proposed $7 million facility at UAH designed to raise the school’s reputation to an even higher level.

While the building goes through a series of required approvals from the UA System Board of Trustees, its identity is almost as fascinating as the work it will someday house.

“A building has to have a name,” said Knupp, a leading tornado researcher who is a professor of atmospheric sciences at UAH.

Knupp said John Christy, director of UAH’s Earth System Science Center, came to him seeking a name for the building. Knupp is no stranger to developing acronyms, but SWIRL “was about the easiest and fastest one I’ve ever developed. It fit the focus of the research.”

Knupp started off with severe weather – giving him an “SW” start – and the first word that came to mind was “swirl.”

“That was an easy task to name the building,” he said. “And the administration seemed to like it because they kept the name.”

The administration liked more than the name. UAH President Robert Altenkirch said the SWIRL building will be a “magnet” for students.

Knupp said he and Christy have been seeking funds to build a facility to expand UAH’s weather research beyond the National Space Science and Technology Center on Sparkman Drive. And UAH determined that the money was available.

Altenkirch said the Earth System Science Center is funded at about $9 million a year – the second-highest research budget at UAH. Only the SMAP Center – which performs research for the Army, NATO and NASA – is higher at about $30 million.

“I was just enthralled with (Knupp’s) passion for this,” UA System trustee Ron Gray of Huntsville said. Gray also chaired Gov. Robert Bentley’s Tornado Recovery Action Council formed in the wake of the April 27, 2011, tornadoes and worked closely with Knupp.

“The recommendation we wrote for this (project) was basically written by Kevin. And John (Christy) is a world leader in his field. Kevin is a great supporter, great advocate for what we’re trying to do,” Gray said.

The facility is planned for the west side of the NSSTC on the west side of campus. Naturally, Knupp said, it will be tornado-proof with a part of the facility to be underground.

“We don’t want to have to bail out if we’re doing a research project,” Knupp said.

Knupp emphasized how the SWIRL building will allow research to be more efficient – including a “war room” to oversee field operations and the opportunity for cross disciplinary projects to take place.

One such project, Knupp said, is a proposal he co-wrote with Marita O’Brien, an assistant professor of psychology, on the psychological impact of tornadoes and the most effective warning systems. While Knupp’s office is in the NSSTC and O’Brien is across campus in Morton Hall, the SWIRL building would provide the setting for closer collaboration.

via SWIRL building at UAH could be game-changer in severe weather research | al.com.

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