To prepare for climate change, states are starting to deal with the weather.
Thirty-eight states are operating or building a network of weather monitoring stations to provide more accurate data than that provided by the National Weather Service. They use that information to detect flash floods, assess wildfire risk, inform agricultural practices and help choose sites for renewable energy projects.
The programs are known as mesonets, which are networks that track weather events from 1 to 150 miles. They are intended to fill in the gaps between National Weather Service locations that may miss local rainfall, wind conditions, or air quality issues.
,[Mesonets] Curtis Marshall, who oversees the National Mesonet program with the National Weather Service, can see and detect in real time the things that would otherwise be within our federal capabilities – torrential rains, strong gusts of wind and things like that. “For the longest time, only a handful of states had built up that capability, but that has accelerated in recent years.”
Marshall’s program supports state efforts and purchases data from their Mesonet to bolster federal forecasts. State officials formed their own network to protect residents from extreme weather events, which are becoming more common due to climate change. They can also provide important information to leaders in various economic sectors and public services most affected by the weather.
“The best of this is yet to come,” said Kenny Blumenfeld, a senior climatologist in the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources State Climatology Office. “People are still figuring out what to do with the data, and I don’t think it’s fully matured to its final form.”
State officials say that over time, their stations will also help establish a baseline to study how climate change is affecting local conditions.
Last month, Maryland leaders announced plans to create the newest state of Mesonet, a network of 75 weather stations that will be supported by $4 million in state funding.
“One of the main goals of the Maryland Mesonet is to improve flash flood warnings for the public,” said Joy Krestel, disaster risk analyst for the Maryland Department of Emergency Management. “Across the country, these systems 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 gaps,” he said, because its diverse topography can cause wide variation in conditions over short distances. Mesonet will help officials decide where to send snowploughs, when to close schools and when to issue emergency warnings. Crastel said the state hopes to set up its first station within a year.
Hawaii is also beginning to build a mesonet, which began last year with support from a grant from the National Science Foundation. As the state sees extreme variations in rainfall on its islands, Mesonet will focus on both assessing flood risks and protecting aquifers from water depletion.
“Filling these gaps is critical,” said Tom Giambelluca, the project’s principal investigator and director of the Center for Water Resources Research at the University of Hawaii at Mauna Kea. “Due to the complexity of spatial patterns, we do not have enough stations and they are not well distributed. The data is invaluable when it comes to understanding and managing these extreme events.
The state aims to bring 80 to 100 stations online within two years.
Oklahoma, which experiences more weather disasters than almost any other state, established the country’s first state, Mesonet, in 1994. It is still considered the gold standard by many meteorologists. The network now includes 120 stations across the state.
“It has turned out to be a significant dividend for the state to have this prosperous real-time [information] and collecting weather data,” said Chris Fiebrich, executive director of Oklahoma Mesonet. “A lot of severe weather like thunderstorms and tornadoes and heavy rainfall often form around boundaries that are hard to detect unless you have a mesonet.”
Mesonet has also helped identify local drought conditions that make farmers eligible for agricultural aid programs. The experts are training wildfire managers to use weather data to predict fire behavior. It informs farmers when wind conditions are safe to spray pesticides and when livestock needs to be protected from heat stress.
More recently, other states have followed Oklahoma’s lead, often after being hit by severe weather events. When Hurricane Irene hit New York in 2011, “we were basically blindsided,” said Chris Thorncroft, director of the New York State Mesonet. “There were major gaps in the observation system.”
Since then, the state has set up 126 weather monitoring sites in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, using funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The program has helped provide early warnings for flash floods in the Adirondacks and improve grid resilience in New York City. The data is also used to locate wind turbines and solar panels in optimal conditions.
“The big signal from climate change for the Northeast is that we will see an increase in the frequency of extreme rainfall events,” Thorncroft said. “You need this real-time information if the weather deviates from the forecast, especially on a smaller scale.”
In other areas, public utilities have invested in weather systems after severe wildfires, including fires in San Diego County in 2003 and 2007 caused by downed San Diego Gas & Electric power lines. Today, the utility operates a private mesonet with 222 stations, looking for weather conditions — often driven by the region’s Santa Ana winds — that could lead to wildfires. Since 2013, the power company has cut power to various locations 26 times to reduce the risk of fire, and is using weather data to determine where to install underground lines.
“We needed to get a much better understanding of the danger of this fire because coverage from San Diego’s National Weather Service is so sparse,” said Chris Arends, manager of the utility’s meteorology program. “With the information we have today, I’m not surprised that the data we’re collecting and modeling hasn’t resulted in an impressive storm because of its utility to the landscape.”
‘They see the need’
Most of the state’s mesonets are operated in conjunction with state universities, but Minnesota has a network within the Department of Natural Resources. The program, which installed its first station in 2015, now has about 40 measurement sites, while another state program has additional sites monitoring agricultural conditions.
“It started with the need to measure severe thunderstorms, but it’s gotten really big,” said Blumenfeld, a Minnesota climatologist. “Agriculture is a huge driving force in understanding how the climate is changing in space. Farmers want applications that tell them how much moisture their fields are likely to lack.
Washington State University operates more than 200 stations as part of its AgWeatherNet. The network helps inform farmers when heat is straining livestock, frost is threatening crops and smoke from wildfires is a danger to workers.
“Farmers want location-specific data,” said Lav Khot, interim director of Mesonet. “They see the need for this network.”
Wyoming’s weather monitoring initially started with an agricultural focus, but is now joining regional efforts to monitor snowpack and soil in the Upper Missouri River Basin. Wyoming is one of many Western states grappling with water rights issues due to deficient river systems.
“It’s very important to get to grips with the type of water used in Wyoming,” said Tony Bergantino, director of the Wyoming Climate Office. “I would expect a better understanding or better understanding of water use before I leave the state.”
And in Kentucky, the state’s Mesonet is helping inform schools when the heat index is unsafe for athletes to exercise outside. It is working with transport authorities to study variable speed limits based on weather conditions. And it’s building a climate database that will inform future efforts.
“There are big gaps in the state that don’t have historical weather information,” said Jerry Brotzge, director of the Kentucky Mesonet and state climatologist. “Having stations with that granularity helps fill in climate knowledge that we didn’t have before.”
This story was originally published on state borderAn initiative of the Pew Charitable Trust.