Stalking the Weather
The Kentucky Mesonet is a relatively new network of local weather and climate observing stations collecting accurate and reliable data every five minutes
As you’ve traveled around the Commonwealth, you may have noticed something slightly unusual on the horizon. With its temperature sensors, precipitation gauges, solar panels, and wind monitors towering high above it all, the Kentucky Mesonet has been welcomed into many neighborhoods across the state.
What exactly is the Kentucky Mesonet?
“Fundamentally, the Kentucky Mesonet is an environmental monitoring infrastructure,” says Dr. Stuart A. Foster, state climatologist for Kentucky, who also serves as director of the Kentucky Climate Center and the Kentucky Mesonet, as well as professor of geography at Western Kentucky University (WKU).
“It consists of more than 60 weather and climate observing stations spread throughout the Commonwealth of Kentucky,” he explains. “Data from these stations are retrieved in near real time, quality assured, stored in a database, and made accessible to business and industry, government agencies, and the general public.”
With funding appropriated through the National Weather Service, secured through the efforts of U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell to the Kentucky Climate Center at WKU, Kentucky became only the second state (after Oklahoma) to build and operate a network of this scale. Kentucky’s first mesonet station was in Warren County, May 2007.
Sixty-four Kentucky counties currently have a mesonet station to monitor weather locally, each measuring air temperature, precipitation, relative humidity, solar radiation, and wind speed and direction. Dew point, wind chill index, and heat index are then derived from these measurements, which are collected every five minutes and retrieved every 15 minutes under normal conditions. Additionally, stations in Hardin, Barren, Fayette, Warren, and Caldwell counties include soil moisture and soil temperature measurements at five depths, ranging from 2 to 40 inches beneath the ground.
When choosing a mesonet location, local officials and civic-minded individuals who know their area best become involved. Tim Gossett, Meade County Rural Electric Cooperative vice president of Member Services and Marketing, learned local involvement for the project was needed. Knowing accurate weather data wasn’t readily available for rural communities, he offered his property for a mesonet site. “It’s another tool in the tool box to work with when it’s needed.”
Although weather affects everyone, perhaps no one area is affected quite so much as agriculture. Lee Robey, Pennyrile Electric cooperative member and whose family owns Robey Farm in Adairville, says the Kentucky Mesonet is helpful in the overall management of his farm. In fact, he uses it every day. “I’ve got it saved on my computer, so I can click and go right to it.”
Of course, rainfall amounts are a major concern. “You know how farmers are about rain,” he laughs. “It’s either too much or not enough.” Robey has advance notice of rain headed toward his farm by monitoring the rainfall data of surrounding counties. “I can get on the computer at 10 a.m. or 11 at night and go to the different sites. It helps you plan what you’re going to do the next day.”
Besides rainfall amounts, Robey says the wind speed helps him determine when to apply field treatments. “We can see the wind is gusting above certain levels, and we can stop spraying. Then we can watch it, and if it slows down, we can start back.”
Mesonet data also assists farmers in knowing the best time to plant crops, helps them better manage livestock during periods of heat or cold stress, and allows them to better predict what their yields might be.
National Weather Service meteorologists use mesonet data to improve daily forecasts and as a complement to radar during active weather situations. “While radar imagery provides insight into what is happening within the storms, the mesonet provides valuable data regarding what is happening on the ground,” says Foster.
Wayne Hart, WEHT and WTVW television Eyewitness News chief meteorologist in Henderson, says the Kentucky Mesonet has filled a large gap in western Kentucky that was void of any reliable observations between the Henderson and Owensboro Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) sites to the north and Fort Campbell and Bowling Green to the south.
“And as most people know,” says Hart, “there can be a big difference in the weather between the Ohio River and the Tennessee line.” He adds, “The Kentucky Mesonet now provides residents of most counties a source of reliable and relevant weather information rather than having to rely on an FAA site that may be 40 or 50 miles away.”
Besides recording current conditions, the mesonet provides information regarding past weather events. “The historical data is most helpful when we are looking back at an event to see how much rain or snow fell. And most importantly, the mesonet is a reliable record for local events that have been impacted by weather, including criminal and civil cases,” says Hart.
The energy sector also benefits from the Kentucky Mesonet. “We thought it would be a good way to track weather data and weather systems as they moved across our service areas,” Gossett says, adding that high winds, ice, or extreme heat or cold are usually the biggest obstacles in keeping the lights on.
“Weather is probably the most critical factor in the day-to-day operations of RECCs,” agrees Foster. Fluctuations in energy demand and consumption, power substations and distribution lines, and line crews dispatched when power outages occur are all impacted by weather.
Jackson Energy Cooperative Director of Public Relations Karen Combs says the mesonet site adjacent to their McKee office provides accurate local data. “This information helps us track how the local weather has impacted the electric bills of our members. We are able to provide better service to our cooperative members by having access to this data.”
Gossett feels mesonet historical figures are also an asset to RECCs. “Weather history may benefit us more than what the weather is at the time. It will help us in our design of our electric systems.”
Potential Kentucky Mesonet growth and expansion was considered in its planning stage. “We designed it to be scaleable, so that we could add additional sensors to each station. We could add additional stations to the network. If need be, we could expand it into other states. It doesn’t have to stay in Kentucky,” says Foster.
There is a goal to grow Kentucky’s network to 100 stations—a number that, Foster says, would achieve optimal density for weather observation in the state as designated by the National Weather Service. Acquiring funding for additional soil probes at existing sites is another goal.
Combs hopes more accurate weather data from a wider area will provide a better system of future storm warnings. “Southeastern and eastern Kentucky were hit by tornadoes this spring that left numerous fatalities and shattered lives in their wake. Hopefully, with additional monitoring stations in the state, families will be able to receive advance warnings to prevent such tragedies.”
Foster believes the Kentucky Mesonet represents a wise investment of taxpayer dollars in the Commonwealth. “Everyone is affected by weather, and our goal is to generate the greatest possible value for the people of Kentucky,” he says. “In the early stages of our efforts, we created the Kentucky Mesonet Consortium to share data with faculty and students at other public universities across Kentucky. Moving forward, our goal is to develop strong partnerships in the public and private sectors.”
A prime example is the energy sector. “There is an opportunity to help rural electric cooperatives and energy producers to better understand how weather impacts their operations,” Foster says, adding that data provided in a timely manner reduces their vulnerability to variations in weather conditions and capitalizes on opportunities to increase energy efficiency. “Increased energy efficiency is something that benefits all Kentuckians.”
Foster says weather data is a public good that benefits everybody, but no individual should bear the costs. With the current state of the economy, moving forward with the Kentucky Mesonet has been a challenge. “We hope to build support statewide. We will seek opportunities to work with federal agencies. And we’d really like to partner with business and industry. I just think it’s an opportunity where everybody can win.”
And while the Kentucky Mesonet benefits communities right now, Foster feels it could prove even more valuable 50 or 100 years from now. “It’s not just an investment for today’s residents,” he says, “but for tomorrow for our grandchildren.”
MESONET is a network of weather stations, typically automated and designed to observe mesoscale meteorological phenomena (meso means middle or intermediate, in weather, usually in a range of a few miles), at the scale of thunderstorms, dry lines, squall lines, and sea breezes or influenced by local variations in topography and land use.
WIND MONITOR A propeller anemometer is mounted on the tower, 10 meters aboveground. Propeller revolution measures wind speed, while the vane gives the direction.
LIVE DATA AND GRAPHS are available, as well as historical data by county, month, and year (from 2007).
PRECIPITATION GAUGE A bucket sits on a computerized scale and is surrounded by a shield to decrease errors in measurement due to wind. Holds approximately 20 inches of accumulated precipitation.
POWER SOURCE A mesonet station can operate using AC, solar power, or both.
AIR TEMPERATURE SENSORS Readings from three sensors inside an aspirated radiation shield mounted 1.5 meters aboveground are averaged together to calculate the official five-minute temperature value. A fan pulls in fresh air, providing an unbiased measurement of air temperature.
TYPOGRAPHY Residents should consider the topography most resembling that of their location, not necessarily the site located within their county, when determining which station is representative of local weather.
SOLAR RADIATION SENSORS A pyranometer measures incoming solar radiation, mounted on the tower, 2 meters aboveground.
MESONET TECHNICIANS typically visit each site three times each year to test and clean sensors and equipment, as well as to mow the grass and take photographs to document changes in the immediate vicinity.
RELATIVE HUMIDITY A probe located inside an unaspirated radiation shield 1.5 meters aboveground provides values.
LESSON PLANS are available for use from kindergarten through 12th grade to bring mesonet data into Kentucky classrooms.
KENTUCKY MESONET TIMELINE
January 17, 2006—Western Kentucky University and National Weather Service—kickoff meeting
May 9, 2007—1st station, Warren County
July 2, 2008—10th station, Grayson County
May 20, 2009—25th station, Mercer County
May 2, 2010—Greatest daily precipitation total, 7.39 inches, Adair County*
July 9, 2010—50th station, McCreary County
August 4, 2010—Highest temperature, 108.0°F, Hopkins County*
February 11, 2011—Lowest temperature, -9.5°F, Warren County*
April 25, 2011—Maximum wind gust, 100.8 mph, Calloway County*
*All records are based only on Kentucky Mesonet observations prior to April 13, 2012.
MORE KENTUCKY MESONET INFO
For additional information, visit the Kentucky Mesonet Web site at www.kymesonet.org.
You can also read past Western Kentucky University announcements about the Kentucky Mesonet online at www.wku.edu (type “mesonet” in the search box to find links).
Mesonet information from the National Weather Service can be found at www.weather.gov by typing “Kentucky Mesonet” in the search box.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: Choosing a mesonet site
To learn how Kentucky Mesonet sites are chosen, from looking for natural terrain to working with civic-minded landowners and business partners, go to: Kentucky Mesonet.