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Energy & Environment

These hyperlocal weather networks can help states like Maryland face climate threats

Climate
Main Street in Ellicott City immediately after a devastating flood in 2018. Howard County Government photo via Getty Images.

By Alex Brown

Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts, provides daily reporting and analysis on trends in state policy. Read more at Stateline.org.

To prepare for climate change, states are getting into the weather business.

Thirty-eight states, including Maryland, are operating or building networks of weather monitoring stations to provide more precise data than they receive from the National Weather Service. They’re using that information to help spot flash floods, assess wildfire risk, inform farming practices and choose locations for renewable energy projects.

The programs are known as mesonets, which are networks that detect weather events spanning 1 to 150 miles. They’re intended to fill the gaps between National Weather Service sites, which can miss localized rain events, wind conditions or air quality issues.

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

Marshall’s program supports state efforts and buys data from their mesonets to bolster federal forecasting. State officials formed their networks to protect residents from extreme weather events, which are becoming more frequent because of climate change. They can also provide key information to leaders in various economic sectors and public services that are affected by the weather.

“The best of this is yet to come,” said Kenny Blumenfeld, senior climatologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources State Climatology Office. “People are still exploring what they can do with the data, and I don’t think this has fully matured into its final form.”

State officials say that, over time, their stations also will help establish a baseline to examine how climate change affects local conditions.

New arrivals

Last month, Maryland leaders announced plans to build the latest state mesonet, a network of 75 weather stations that will be installed thanks to $4 million in state funding.

“One of the main goals of the Maryland mesonet is to improve warnings of flash flooding for the public,” said Joey Krastel, 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 increase early warning times.”

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

Hawaii also is beginning the process of building a mesonet, which commenced last year with support from a National Science Foundation grant. Because the state sees extreme precipitation variance across its islands, the mesonet will focus on both assessing flood risk and protecting aquifers from water shortages.

“It’s important to fill 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. “Because of the complexity of the spatial patterns, we don’t have enough stations and they’re not distributed well. Data is priceless when it comes to understanding and managing these extreme events.”

The state is aiming to get 80 to 100 stations online within two years.

‘Significant dividends’

Oklahoma, which sees more weather disasters than nearly any other state, established the nation’s first state mesonet in 1994. It’s still considered the gold standard by many weather experts. The network now includes 120 stations throughout the state.

“It’s proven to have significant dividends for the state to have this rich real-time [information] and archive 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 set up around boundaries that are hard to detect unless you have a mesonet.”

The mesonet also has helped identify local drought conditions that make farmers eligible for agriculture relief programs. Its experts have trained wildland fire managers to use weather data to predict fire behavior. It informs farmers when wind conditions are safe for spraying pesticides, and when cattle need to be sheltered from heat stress.

Recently, other states have followed Oklahoma’s lead, often after being struck by severe weather events. When Hurricane Irene hit New York in 2011, “we were basically blind,” said Chris Thorncroft, director of the New York State Mesonet. “There were big gaps in the observing system.”

Since then, the state has installed 126 weather monitoring sites, using funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. The program has helped issue earlier warnings for flash flood risk in the Adirondacks and improve grid resiliency in New York City. Its data is also used to site wind turbines and solar panels in favorable conditions.

“The big climate change signal for the Northeast is that we’re going to see increased frequency of extreme rainfall rates,” Thorncroft said. “You need this real-time information for when the weather does deviate from forecasts, especially at small scales.”

In other regions, public utilities have invested in weather systems after severe wildfires, including the fires that hit San Diego County in 2003 and 2007, 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 electric utility has cut power to various locations 26 times to reduce fire risk, while also using weather data to strategize where to put lines underground.

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

‘They see the need’

Most state mesonets are run 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 has additional sites monitoring agricultural conditions.

“It started with a need to sample severe thunderstorms, but it’s really grown,” said Blumenfeld, the Minnesota climatologist. “Agriculture is a huge impetus for understanding how the weather is changing over space. Farmers want applications that tell them how deprived of moisture their fields are likely to be.”

Washington State University operates more than 200 stations as part of its AgWeatherNet. The network helps inform farmers when heat stresses livestock, frost threatens crops and wildfire smoke endangers workers.

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

Wyoming’s weather monitoring started with an agriculture focus, but it’s 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 shortages.

“It’s very important to get a handle on what water is being used in Wyoming,” said Tony Bergantino, director of the Wyoming Climate Office. “I would expect a better knowledge or accounting of what water is being used prior to exiting the state.”

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

“There are large gaps across the state that have no historical weather information,” said Jerry Brotzge, director of the Kentucky Mesonet and the state climatologist. “Having stations at that granularity helps fill in climate knowledge that we didn’t have before.”