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Statewide weather network settles in at UAlbany

Statewide weather network settles in at UAlbany

'There’s really no limit to what can be done with this amount of data'
Statewide weather network settles in at UAlbany
UAlbany students Christina Talamo, left, and Ashley Williamson review weather data at the Mesonet office at UAlbany on Tuesday.
Photographer: Zachary Matson/Daily Gazette Reporter

In a basement office at UAlbany, a team of meteorologists, researchers and student interns watch New York’s weather unfold in real time.

Data flows into the office from 126 weather stations positioned strategically across the state – from New York City rooftops to Tug Hill farms – mapping the state’s weather patterns as they unfold. With cameras at each station capturing a new photo every five minutes, the students and researchers watch as snow piles up and melts away.

The New York State Mesonet, the network of weather stations based at UAlbany, has been fully operational for the past year, and officials at the university are hoping New York businesses, municipalities and other agencies do more to leverage the detailed weather information.

“There’s really no limit to what can be done with this amount of data,” said Jerald Brotzge, project director of Mesonet, during a presentation Tuesday.

Mesonet has partnered with farmers, transportation agencies and businesses to tailor data that can improve decision-making on everything from scheduling crews for salting roads to projecting staffing levels that will be needed to address power outages during storms. In recent months, the Capital Region BOCES has started working with experts at UAlbany on how the data could be used to inform decisions about whether to close or delay public schools.

The network installed its final weather station – station 126 – a year ago -- a little more than two years after the first station was installed in Schuylerville, in fall 2015. The weather stations – which collect data on air temperature, soil temperature and moisture levels, atmospheric pressure, wind speed, solar radiation and more – are spaced about 20 miles apart. At least one is located in every county in the state.

A team of five technicians travel the state to maintain, repair and replace equipment at the weather stations. Brotzge estimated the technicians, combined, travel about 100,000 miles a year to keep the stations operating. Another half-dozen staffers and scientists work from UAlbany to analyze and clean the data and develop new products using the information.

Half of the stations are on private land and half are on public land, with about one-third positioned on farmland. Brotzge said the farmers benefit from having weather stations on their properties to measure soil temperatures and other conditions important to agriculture.

While the data is uploaded to UAlbany every few minutes through the state’s cellular network, it is also backed up on a satellite every hour. So, even if the state’s entire cell network goes down, emergency managers will be able to tap into the system's weather data.

“Which is good for an emergency situation, because you need that,” Brotzge said.

The new weather station network automatically feeds data to the National Weather Service and has been integrated into that agency's forecasts. The expanded network has improved those forecasts by adding tens of thousands of new weather observations each day into the forecast models. Before the Mesonet was established, Brotzge said, first responders and emergency managers were limited in their ability to pinpoint weather conditions in specific areas.

“Emergency managers were really blind in a lot of high-impact, severe weather situations with this old network,” Brotzge said.

Around six UAlbany students work as interns in the Mesonet office, reviewing the constant stream of data that flows into the office’s computers to help flag potential issues. They also watch as weather develops. Each of the 126 photo streams sits on one of a handful of screens around the office, organized by geographic location.

In recent days, snow squalls caused white-out conditions in parts of the state. But Mesonet’s student interns missed the snow show; they were in class.

“But the next day we looked back at it," said Christina Talamo, a junior interested in broadcast meteorology

The students monitor data streams and the cameras, working with Mesonet’s scientists to spot errors in the data or signs that the stations need maintenance. When technicians are on-site at stations – evidenced by their appearance on the five-minute-interval photographs – the students communicate with them about issues that need to be fixed.

“The best part is when we figure out how to fix one of the problems,” said junior Ashley Williamson, who said working at Mesonet has shifted her interest in meteorology more toward research.

The student interns also spot some weird occurrences across the state. At the weather station in Redfield, on the Tug Hill Plateau, a local prankster placed a cutout of a Big Foot in view of the Mesonet camera. Every few days, the prankster moves the cut out; on Tuesday, Big Foot was standing a few feet from the weather station but did not appear to disturb the flow of weather data.

“When it’s dark, you can see the eyes glow,” Williamson said of the fake Big Foot.

Mesonet is slated to be moved into UAlbany’s new Emerging Technologies Buildings, which is under construction on the Harriman State Campus and is expected to be complete in 2021. Plans call for the top two floors to house UAlbany’s dozens of weather scientists and researchers, including Mesonet.

“The sky’s the limit in terms of what and who is affected by weather,” said Nick Bassill, a Mesonet scientist.

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