Talk About the Weather
By: Sally Logue Post
From farmers to fire departments, the West Texas Mesonet plays an important role in distributing weather information
Weather dominates two things in West Texas – conversation and the economy. For farmers, knowing when to plant, how much and when to water is vital to their survival. During the spring, everyone casts a wary eye to the sky looking for a brown cloud of dust or the blue-black clouds that may signal a dangerous thunderstorm.
Texas Tech University's West Texas Mesonet is a network of 104 weather stations covering 70 counties in Texas, New Mexico and Colorado. The system provides real-time weather data via the internet to farmers, the National Weather Service (NWS), fire fighters and anyone who just wants to check in on what Mother Nature is doing today. The website receives more than 70,000 hits per day.
How it Works
Each Mesonet station consists of a 33-foot tower with instruments to measure a variety of atmospheric conditions including wind speed, temperature, humidity, rain fall, barometric pressure as well as soil temperature and moisture. The information is sent to a central station office at Texas Tech's National Wind Institute facilities at Reese Technology Center about 12 miles west of the university's campus.
While the science behind the Mesonet measurements is nothing new, meteorologists have used the same measurements for decades. The twist the West Texas Mesonet adds is the ability to push out that data every five minutes via the internet.
"The uses of the data are diverse," said John Schroeder, principal investigator on the project. "Our data can help farmers know when and how much to water or determine if the soil is warm enough to plant. We also archive the data and receive requests from researchers, school students and the general public from across the country looking for data."
The requests run the gamut from small everyday questions to requests involving legal disputes such as the wind data on a specific day in a specific place to help determine why a building collapsed.
"The variability is huge," said Schroeder. "We get about two requests a week. And every time we think we have a handle on our data users, something new pops up that we would never have thought of as a use."
The Mesonet played a major role in assisting emergency management personnel in fighting massive wildfires in the Texas Panhandle in March 2017. It was the Mesonet station near Amarillo that first alerted officials that a wildfire could be underway.
It just so happened that two separate fires merged right at the Amarillo Mesonet station, triggering a temperature spike to 108 degrees Farenheite and alerting officials to a possible fire.
"Wildfires are not easy to detect," said Wes Burgett, operations manager for the West Texas Mesonet. "They usually start in areas where there are not a lot of people around. A fire can be seen on satellite or when it's bigger on radar. But it was really dusty that day, making it harder to see. When a fire is moving 50-to-60 miles an hour, by the time it is spotted lives can be in jeopardy."
By the time the Panhandle wildfires were contained, about 500,000 acres had burned, four people had died, and thousands of head of livestock were killed or displaced. The Mesonet allowed emergency personnel to make decisions.
"Our data looks at the atmospheric set up – will an incoming front change the wind direction and will it change the way we expect?" said Schroeder. "The network is feeding constant data into the system, to help make decisions that can help position people and equipment or evacuate those who may be in danger."
Officials with the NWS in Amarillo said, "WTM data was invaluable for our partners as we used the Amarillo 9NNE site and several other WTM sites to brief firefighters on wind direction and wind shifts during the outbreak."
Despite being at the center of the wildfire, the Mesonet station, while singed a bit, was not lost thanks to a fire break cut by the Amarillo Fire Department. That cooperation is just one example of the partnerships that have allowed the Mesonet to expand over the last 17 years.
The West Texas Mesonet began as 35 stations around the Lubbock area with funding from the state of Texas. When Reese Air Force Base closed, Lubbock officials began an effort to turn the base into a business and technology center. Part of the funding went toward what was originally hoped to be a state-wide network. While the network never happened, Texas Tech immediately jumped on the opportunity and built the initial network that was intended at the time to be a sort of pilot project for the statewide effort.
There are other, smaller mesonet systems in Texas, but the West Texas Mesonet is the only one making real contributions to statewide atmospheric condition monitoring, said Schroeder.
The National Weather Service is a major partner for the West Texas Mesonet. Before the Mesonet, there were three weather stations in this area, one each in Lubbock, Plainview and Amarillo. Now the weather service has access to data to the more than one hundred stations located about 25 miles apart. The network sends data to six weather service offices.
"The Mesonet provides useful information," Burgett said. "For example, if a storm is coming into Lubbock from the southwest, it will hit several stations before it gets to the city, so the weather service has an idea of what's coming and how severe the storm may be."
In addition to NWS funding that helps to maintain and grow the network, Burgett says he gets a tremendous amount of help setting up and maintaining the stations. Part of Burgett's job is to install and maintain the stations, something that is pretty much a one-man show.
"I do get a lot of help from the weather service folks," he said. "They love weather and they like to get out of the office. They've helped me build many stations."
Predicting the Future
Numbering 103 stations across parts of three states, the West Texas Mesonet is big, but plans continue to establish new stations. The Mesonet team is also looking at new ways to make the data more accessible to those who need it most.
There has been an Android app out for a while and a new iTunes store app was released this year, both providing general Mesonet data. The Mesonet team is studying what might come next whether it's improvements to a general weather information app or customized products that serve specific user groups, such as the agricultural community.
"We want to put the power of the observations in the hands of the user," said Schroder. "In a lot of cases we have farmers sitting on their tractors, not sitting at home in front of a computer. He or she needs to have the information when they need it, where they need it."
Burgett said as the team is exploring what's feasible for the future, they are working with researchers in the Texas Tech College of Agriculture Science (CASNR) and Texas Alliance for Water Conservation (TAWC) as they evaluate how to move forward with a new app.
"I like to look at the clouds, but I'm not very good at looking down at the crops," said Burgett. "Looking long term at new production, the folks in CASNR have the background and can give us the context of what farmers might need most."