These hyperlocal weather networks can help countries address climate threats

In order to prepare for climate change, countries are getting into the weather business.

Thirty-eight states operate or are building networks of weather monitoring stations to provide more accurate data than is obtained from the National Weather Service. They use this information to detect flash floods, assess wildfire risk, inform farming practices, and select sites for renewable energy projects.

The programs are known as mesonets, which are networks that detect weather events from 1 to 150 miles away. They are designed to fill in the gaps between National Weather Service locations that may miss local rain events, wind conditions or air quality issues.


“[Mesonets] can see and detect things in real time that might otherwise fall between our federal capabilities — flooding, severe wind gusts and the like,” said Curtis Marshall, who oversees the National Mesonet Program at the National Weather Service. “For the longest time, only a handful of states had built this capability, but it has accelerated greatly in recent years.”

Marshall’s program supports government efforts and buys data from their mesonets to support federal projections. State officials formed their networks to protect residents from extreme weather events that are becoming more frequent due to climate change. They can also provide critical information for leaders in various business sectors and public services affected by the weather.

“The best is yet to come,” said Kenny Blumenfeld, chief climatologist with the state climatology office of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “People are still exploring what they can do with the data and I don’t think that’s fully matured into its final form.”

State officials say their stations will also help establish a baseline over time to study how climate change is affecting local conditions.

New Arrivals

Last month, Maryland leaders announced plans to build the state’s newest mesonet, a network of 75 weather stations to be installed thanks to $4 million in federal funding.

“One of the primary goals of the Maryland Mesonet is to improve flash flood warnings for the public,” said Joey Krastel, a disaster risk analyst with the Maryland Department of Emergency Management. “These systems across the country have been proven to save lives, save states money before and during weather events, improve weather forecasts, and extend early warning times.”

Maryland needs to fill its “data holes,” he said, because its diverse topography can result in a wide variability in conditions over short distances. The mesonet will help officials decide where to send snowplows, when to close schools and when to issue emergency alerts. The state hopes to install its first stations within a year, Krastel said.

Hawaii is also beginning construction of a mesonet, which began last year with support from a grant from the National Science Foundation. Because the state experiences extreme variations in rainfall on its islands, the mesonet focuses on both flood risk assessment and protecting aquifers from water shortages.

“It’s important to fill in these gaps,” said Tom Giambelluca, the project’s principal investigator and director of the Water Resources Research Center at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. “Due to the complexity of the spatial patterns, we don’t have enough stations and they aren’t well distributed. Data is invaluable when it comes to understanding and managing these extreme events.”

The country aims to bring 80 to 100 transmitters online within two years.

“Significant Dividends”

Oklahoma, which experiences more weather disasters than almost any other state, established the nation’s first State Mesonet in 1994. It is still considered the gold standard by many weather experts. The network now includes 120 stations across the country.

“Having this rich real time has been shown to have significant dividends for the state [information] and archives of weather data,” said Chris Fiebrich, executive director of the Oklahoma Mesonet. “A lot of severe weather like thunderstorms and tornadoes and heavy rain often form around boundaries that are difficult to see unless you have a mesonet.”

The Mesonet has also helped identify local drought conditions that make farmers eligible for farm assistance programs. Its experts have trained forest fire managers to use weather data to predict fire behavior. It informs farmers when wind conditions are safe for pesticide spraying and when cattle need protection from heat stress.

More recently, other Oklahoma states have followed suit, often after severe weather events have hit them. When Hurricane Irene hit New York in 2011, “we were practically blind,” said Chris Thorncroft, director of the New York State Mesonet. “There were big gaps in the observation system.”

Since then, the state has established 126 weather monitoring sites funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. The program has helped issue earlier flash flood risk warnings in the Adirondacks and improved power grid resiliency in New York City. Its data is also used to place wind turbines and solar panels in favorable conditions.

“The big climate change signal for the Northeast is that we will see an increasing frequency of extreme precipitation rates,” Thorncroft said. “They need this real-time information when the weather deviates from forecasts, especially at small scales.”

In other regions, public utilities have invested in weather systems after severe wildfires, including the fires that ravaged San Diego County in 2003 and 2007 and were caused in part by power lines operated by San Diego Gas & Electric. Today, the utility operates a private mesonet with 222 stations, looking for weather conditions — often driven by the region’s Santa Ana winds — that can cause wildfires. Since 2013, the utility has cut power 26 times at various locations to reduce the risk of fire and also used weather data to strategically plan where to bury power lines.

“We needed to understand this fire hazard much better because San Diego’s National Weather Service coverage is pretty sparse,” said Chris Arends, manager of the utility’s meteorology program. “With the information we have today, I’m not surprised that based on all of this data that we’re collecting and modeling, there hasn’t been a utility-caused fire that impacted the landscape.”

“You see the need”

Most state mesonets are operated in partnership with state universities, but Minnesota operates a network within its Department of Natural Resources. The program, which installed its first station in 2015, now has about 40 monitoring sites, while another state program includes additional sites to monitor farm conditions.

“It started with the need to test severe thunderstorms, but it’s really grown,” said Blumenfeld, the Minnesota-based climatologist. “Agriculture is a huge driver for understanding how the weather is changing in space. Farmers want applications that tell them how little moisture their fields are likely to have.”

Washington State University operates more than 200 stations as part of its AgWeatherNet. The network helps inform farmers when heat is stressing livestock, frost is threatening crops and smoke from wildfires is putting workers at risk.

“Farmers want site-specific data,” said Lav Khot, Mesonet’s interim director. “They see the need for this network.”

Weather monitoring in Wyoming originally focused on agriculture but is now joining regional efforts to monitor snowpack and soil in the Upper Missouri River Basin. Wyoming is among many Western states grappling with water rights issues as river systems face bottlenecks.

“It’s very important to get an overview of what water is used in Wyoming,” said Tony Bergantino, director of the Wyoming Climate Office. “I would expect a better knowledge or account of what water is being used before leaving the state.”

And in Kentucky, the state’s Mesonet helps inform schools when the heat index is unsafe for athletes to train outdoors. It works with traffic officials to investigate variable speed limits based on weather conditions. And it’s creating a climate database that will inform future efforts.

“There are large gaps statewide for which there is no historical weather information,” said Jerry Brotzge, director of the Kentucky Mesonet and state climatologist. “Stations with this granularity help add to climate knowledge that we didn’t have before.”

This article was first published by state border, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts. read this original story.

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