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Mahalov takes aim to reduce air travelers’ turbulent times


July 10, 2008

Anyone who frequently travels by airplane has likely experienced clear-air turbulence. It’s the kind of jarring turbulence that can quickly turn a smooth flight into a bumpy ride, often causing aircraft to drop anywhere from a few feet to thousands of feet within seconds.

A recently awarded $716,000 grant from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research will fund research by ASU professor Alex Mahalov aimed at reducing those anxious moments for air travelers.

Mahalov also will study another kind of atmospheric turbulence that poses problems for astronomers.

Optical turbulence results from the amplitude and phase fluctuations in electromagnetic waves propagating through the atmosphere, which is what causes stars to appear to “twinkle.” It also is a major source of telescope image degradation, making it difficult for astronomers to get clear views into space.

Mahalov is a professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Science, with a joint appointment in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering in the university’s Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering.

Mahalov, working in the engineering school’s Center for Environmental Fluid Dynamics, will use funding from the grant over a three-year period to improve techniques for identifying, forecasting and detecting areas of clear-air turbulence and modeling of optical turbulence under extreme environmental conditions.

He will collaborate with experts at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., on improving the ability of numerical codes to forecast clear-air turbulence, particularly in areas of mountainous terrain.

“Improved real-time predictability and forecasting of high-impact, clear-air turbulence events will minimize the potential for costly devastation to human life and loss of business assets,” Mahalov says.

He also will work with astronomers at the observatories at Mauna Kea in Hawaii on using adaptive optics to reduce telescope image degradation caused by atmospheric optical turbulence.

Mahalov works with ASU’s high-performance computing group on creating real-time, high-resolution environmental forecasts. When researchers study multi-scale dynamics over a relatively limited geographic area, he explains, they need to use high-resolution models to produce accurate predictions.