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A New Role for Weather Simulations to Assist Wind Engineering Projects
By: Mike Lepage, M.Sc., CCM; Xin Qiu, PhD., ACM; and Valerie Sifton, P.Eng.

When it comes to designing structures that can stand up to the wind, historical wind data are an indispensable tool in the engineers tool bag. In many parts of the world, however, these data are hard to come by. Satellite photo of a massive sandstorm sweeping over the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, February 15, 2004 Often, a bridge or high-rise structure is being designed for a location that is many tens of kilometers away from the nearest weather station that has a long record of reliable surface wind data. Significant differences in wind climate can occur over these distances.
Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

In mountainous terrain, a project may be located fairly close to a weather station, but separated from it by topography, so that its local wind climate is vastly different. In coastal areas, the nearest weather station may be closer to, or farther from the coastline than the project, and is subjected to different effects from hurricanes and other coastal wind phenomena as a result. High wind events in some parts of the world have a unique vertical structure that may not be adequately predicted by conventional models of vertical wind profile (e.g., Chinook winds in mountainous regions of Alberta, Shamal winds over the Arabian Peninsula). Computer modeling is now able to accurately predict wind speeds and directions through an extensive vertical profile.


In the following graph, the balloon data obtained from Abu Dhabi International Airport at 04:00 1992/5/27 are alike to the MM5 modeling data at the same location and time. The advantages of modeling includes the level of detail as well as the freedom to obtain modeling data for any location and time. (See Madagascar section for more discussion on model accuracy.)

RWDI has encountered these issues often, in studying wind loads for projects throughout the world. In recent years, RWDI has taken advantage of sophisticated meteorological simulation tools to resolve the issues. Over three decades ago, numerical weather simulations emerged as a prominent tool for weather forecasting. These simulations were based on the idea that, by solving the fundamental equations of atmospheric physics on a 3-D grid and extrapolating those equations in time, one could predict future weather patterns. Not only could these equations be extrapolated in time, but they could also be extrapolated in space, to determine existing and future weather patterns in places where there are no observing stations. Continuous increases in computer power over the past 30 years have allowed these simulations to be run at ever-increasing resolution in both space and time. Today, high-resolution numerical weather simulations (i.e., meteorological models) are useful for a broad range of purposes. In the late 1990s, RWDI began to use numerical meteorological models to simulate large-scale weather patterns for air quality research. The 3-D meteorological fields produced by these models were used as input to air quality models that simulated the transport, diffusion and chemical transformation of air pollutants over large regions. Since then, RWDI has applied meteorological models to other applications, such as producing regional wind maps to assist developers in finding good sites for wind farms. Most recently, we have become the first engineering consulting firm to apply these models to the field of wind engineering.


For the purpose of determining design wind speeds for highrises in Dubai, RWDI previously used long-term hourly wind data from the surface weather station in Dubai to predict the 50-year return period wind speed. The resultant speed was scaled to the top of the boundary layer using a traditional power-law extrapolation. In addition, upper air data from Abu Dhabi were analyzed to provide a direct prediction of the 50-year wind speed at various heights in the boundary layer. The Abu Dhabi upper air data, however, were not hourly (useable readings available at an average rate of approximately two times per day). As such, these data were considered to provide a less reliable estimate of 50-year wind speed than the surface data at Dubai. Given the unusual characteristics of vertical wind profiles during Shamal events, it was felt that additional information was needed to have a better understanding of the 50-year wind speed at the top of the boundary layer.


With this goal in mind, RWDI reviewed the historical data to identify several representative Shamal events (Figure 1) and then simulated these events with a numerical weather model. A model called MM5 was used, which was developed by Penn State University and the National Center for Atmospheric Research in the US, and has been widely used throughout the world. The Shamal wind events are large in scale and, in order to model them effectively, it is necessary to model a large geographic area. This was done efficiently by using a series of nested model domains (Figure 2), with each nest being at 3 times higher spatial resolution than the domain in which it is embedded. The innermost domain had a horizontal grid-spacing of 4 kilometres. The simulation had 31 vertical layers and, to ensure that vertical profiles in the boundary layer were well characterized, 15 of those layers were placed in the lowest 1500m above the surface. The figure on the bottom of page one shows an example of output from the meteorological model. This 3-D view illustrates a horizontal slice of the wind field, at 700m above the surface, as well as a vertical slice passing through Dubai, at 0400 GMT on May 4, 1999. At this moment, northwesterly wind dominates the region and the wind speed is about 20m/s at 700m above Dubai. The highest wind core (U > 24m/s) is to the northwest of Dubai over the Arabian Gulf. The figure at the top of page two (The Accuracy of Computer Modeling) shows examples of vertical profiles that were extracted from the model. This Shamal event shows strong wind shears for both wind speeds and wind directions. Wind speed peaks (18 m/s) occur between 600 and 700m, and wind direction shifts show about 100 degrees of changes from surface up to 1400m.
Figure 1: Selecting Shamal Wind Events to be Simulated


Until recently, the task of simulating an entire year of weather conditions was impractical because of the intensive computational requirements of the simulation. Over the past few years, however, RWDI has been expanding its Linux computing cluster to the point where it now has over 50 high-speed processors (May, 2006) that can simultaneously perform the needed calculations. A full year simulation that previously would have required several months of run time can be performed within two to three weeks. As the cluster continues to grow and older processors are upgraded, computer data run times will continue to shrink.

To date, we have applied numerical meteorological models to the following wind engineering problems: Determining design wind speeds in locations that do not have suitable historical wind observations. An example of this is a recent project we undertook to determine the design wind speed for a remote mining site in a mountainous region of Madagascar. Assessing vertical wind profiles and turbulence intensity in areas affected by wind events with unusual vertical structure. A recent example is meteorological modeling of Shamal wind storms in the Dubai area. This was conducted for the Burj Dubai project (the soon to be the worlds tallest building).


Strong northerly and northwesterly wind events that occur in the Arabian (Persian) Gulf are known as the Shamal (meaning North). Shamals produce the most widespread hazardous weather known in the region. They are caused by the presence of a large pressure gradient that develops behind a cold front passage. Upperlevel subsidence in the high-pressure cell behind the front reinforces the low-level northwesterly winds. Moderate to strong winds can raise desert surface material and reduce visibility. During a Shamal, winds typically reach 30 to 40kts near the surface during the daytime. A common phenomenon with Shamal wind events is de-coupling from the surface layer (particularly at night time), so that the wind aloft (several hundred metres above the surface) is very strong, while the wind at the surface is moderate to light. In these cases, the wind speed typically peaks at elevations between 500m and 1000m above the surface, and the vertical profile of wind speed between the surface and the level of maximum wind speed can be unusually steep.
Burj Dubai

Figure 2: Nested Model Domains in the MM5 Modeling


In Madagascar, RWDI took on the challenge of estimating a design wind speed for a proposed mining operation that was over 100 km away from the nearest meteorological station and located in an area of significant topography. Thirty years of hourly wind data were obtained for the nearest weather station and it was analyzed to estimate a 50-year peak gust speed. But there was no way of knowing how applicable the resulting speed was for the mine site.

Meteorological modeling of Shamal wind storms in the Dubai area were conducted for the Burj Dubai super tall building project located in the United Arab Emirates.

Courtesy of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP

To address this problem, RWDI performed an hour-by-hour simulation of an entire year of weather conditions over Madagascar, using a set of nested model domains similar to that used for Dubai. Rather than using MM5, a new generation of meteorological model called WRF was used, which is the recent product of a joint development between the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), the National Center for Environmental Prediction (NCEP), the Forecast System Laboratory (FSL), the Air Force Weather Agency (AFWA), and various universities in the US. A single year of simulated weather data is not enough to derive statistics for extreme wind speeds, but it is enough to make a side-by-side statistical comparison with the same year of data from the nearest weather station. This allows the development of correction factors that can be applied to the extreme wind statistics that were produced from over 30 years of data at that station. Figure 3, for example, shows the observed and predicted wind speed distribution for the historical weather station (Antananarivo). While not perfect, the model shows good agreement with the observed data.
Figure 3: Wind Speed Distribution for Antananarivo

A scattergram of hourly wind speeds at Antananarivo plotted against modelled hourly wind speeds at the mine site shows a tendency for lower wind speeds at the mine site (Figure 4). This is perhaps not surprising, as the mine is located in a valley setting. Based on a careful analysis of these data, we estimated that the 50-year wind speed at the mine site would be about 20% lower than that at Antananarivo.
Figure 4: Hourly Wind Speed Scatter Plot Comparing Antananarivo to the Mine Site

As RWDI continues to apply numerical weather simulations for Wind Engineering, new and exciting uses for the models will be discovered. One promising future use will be to link weather simulations like MM5 and WRF directly with CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamics) and other high-resolution flow modeling tools that RWDI is developing (see This will allow RWDI to predict local wind and weather effects on structures under a variety of meteorological conditions using computer simulations.

Rowan Williams Davies & Irwin Inc. (519).823.1311 RWDI Anemos Ltd. 01582.470250

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