Network of weather stations coming together in New York

With nearly 60 permanent sites secured, the $23.6 million New York State Mesonet project is moving f
Meteorologist Richard Westergard in his office in Niskayuna.
Meteorologist Richard Westergard in his office in Niskayuna.

With nearly 60 permanent sites secured, the $23.6 million New York State Mesonet project is moving forward at full speed.

Scientists at the University at Albany are spearheading the initiative under the joint leadership of Dr. Christopher Thorncroft, chair of the Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences Department, and Dr. Everette Joseph, director of the university’s Atmospheric Sciences Research Center.

“New York is not served by weather observations as well as we would like it to be,” Thorncroft said. “The Northeast is the part of the country that has seen and observed some of the most extreme rainfall events over the last several decades. The system is designed to address this need and fill the current gaps between reliable stations.”

NYS Mesonet, with the support of the state Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, plans to install 125 stations across the state, located an average of 20 miles from each other. Thorncroft said this will be a big improvement over the roughly 25 “quality sites” currently used to observe weather across the state.

The selection process for new station sites has been very involved, but so far, successful.

“We have several teams using their expertise to determine where these stations should be,” Thorncroft said. “Siting is crucial. We are being very careful because in order for the system to be useful, we need to make sure the quality of the data is as high as it can be.”

About half of the sites have been confirmed, but Thorncroft couldn’t identify exact locations.

Each station will have one observation tower. These look like cellphone towers but are a fraction of the height, standing 30 feet tall. The towers will be centered in a 33-by-33-foot, fenced-in plot of land. They must be at least 300 feet from any tall obstacles and potential heat sources, including trees, buildings and pavement.

The stations will be solar-powered and self-sufficient, taking measurements for air temperature, relative humidity, wind speed and direction, solar radiation, soil moisture and temperature, and precipitation amounts for rainfall and snow.

What separates the NYS Mesonet from other systems like it are the 17 planned enhanced sites for the project. These stations will require taller towers and more land, and their observations will focus on the lower miles of the atmosphere for weather prediction and monitoring.

All the stations will report data to the university’s research center every three to five minutes. That means the center could be receiving, processing, and quality-controlling over 500,000 observations every day.

“Weather is essential to life, property, even the economy,” Thorncroft said. “The information these stations can provide will be invaluable to our communities.”

The National Weather Service Forecast Office in Albany would not comment on the potential impact of the mesonet, but it is a close partner on the project.

Thorncroft said in addition to the university, the NWS will have access to the data collected by the mesonet to create forecasts, and landowners who choose to house a station will also have free access to the data. He said other details of the data sharing were not yet finalized.

The project was set in motion last autumn by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who was frustrated about inaccurate forecasts before a huge November snowstorm that buried parts of the Buffalo region.

Dick Westergard is a forensic meteorologist and president of Shade Tree Meteorology in Niskayuna. He reconstructs severe weather events for court cases and said depending on if and how the university plans to privately sell the data, he would certainly purchase it for relevant cases.

But he’s skeptical of the expectation the mesonet will be able to predict severe weather.

“Whenever a large weather event happens, we look for new ways, with vigor, to improve our prediction systems to accrue more data, and the means of doing that is often a mesonet,” Westergard said. “It’s not a new concept, but these events remind us we can use more data to make better forecasts.”

He said the mesonet stations are best for working with small-scale models and features of weather systems. He said they will not provide information necessary for predicting sudden, severe weather, like the western New York snowstorms last autumn or the EF-0 tornado that hit Scotia last month.

In these situations, Westergard emphasized the challenge of predicting them and praised forecasters for their work.

“The errors in the forecast for Buffalo during that storm were overemphasized, and the National Weather Service’s office there did a really good job bracketing and tracking the amount of snow that was going to fall,” he said. “Small changes in wind and moisture, especially when dealing with lake effect snow, can happen quickly and make a huge difference, and forecasters stayed on top of it.”

In the June 9 incident, the National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning from Saratoga Springs north to Glens Falls at 2:15 p.m. At 2:41 p.m., an intense but narrowly concentrated storm hit Scotia, leaving significant damage. Later that day, weather officials confirmed a small tornado had touched down in the village — which is more than 25 miles southwest of the warning area.

But Westergard said any direct indication that a tornado was imminent would likely have been beyond the mesonet’s reach.

“A tornado’s diameter is relatively small, and with many miles between stations, it just won’t cut it,” he said.

Thorncroft disagreed and stood by the system for severe weather preparation. He cites Hurricane Irene as an example when forecasters could have and should have been better informed.

“Irene came up through the Catskills and was breaking records, but we didn’t know it in real time,” Thorncroft said. “I believe this system will change that by helping us assess risks before weather occurs, giving us better information about the intensity of rain as it’s occurring, and following major systems as they move.”

Though the NYS Mesonet’s capabilities have yet to be proved, Westergard agreed the data it generates will be beneficial.

“I don’t want to dis the idea of having a mesonet,” he said. “The more information I have, the more precise and thorough I can be. With more information comes the opportunity for better defined forecasts and more accuracy.”

Once the data they collect is shared and consumed, Thorncroft expects the stations to be well-received by New York residents.

“It’s the kind of information that people, once they have it, they don’t want it to go away,” he said.

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