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WNY’s fickle weather poses a challenge for the state’s new system

New York State later this year will build an enhanced weather station – one of just 17 across the state – at the University at Buffalo’s North Campus.

The data collection “superstation” will be able to peer up into the belly of a storm and use microwave technology to create 3-D images of the atmosphere 3 miles above the ground.

One problem.

That location sits too far away from Lake Erie, local weather experts say. The lake – a natural snow-making machine – can blanket some towns with a foot of lake-effect snow while places only miles away get a few inches, and then reverse fates the next day.

What’s more, 14 other weather stations – not as elaborate as the one at UB – are being built across Western New York as part of the state’s $24 million weather forecast system. But only a handful of those stations will be installed near Lake Erie.

“I’m thinking it would be great to put a station in Hamburg, put a station in Angola, downtown Buffalo,” said Jack Kanack, founder of Weather Medic and a member of the American Meteorological Society. “None of these areas are covered. It just baffles me.”

The locations of the weather stations can make or break a forecast and determine how well forecasters will catch the next double lake-effect storm like the one that buried some local communities under 7 feet of snow in November 2014.

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GALLERY: 100 memorable images from November 2014’s lake-effect storm

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It would make more sense to put the stations closer to Lake Erie, Kanack said.

Kanack likes the idea of the new weather forecast system. But he suggests putting weather stations every few miles along the Lake Erie shoreline and Niagara River corridor as well as at SUNY Buffalo State, on Buffalo’s West Side, and at Beaver Island State Park, on Grand Island.

Erie County Emergency Services Commissioner Daniel Neaverth Jr. said the proposed location of the superstation at UB surprised him, too.

“If you had tornado alley, you’d want it in tornado alley,” Neaverth said.

The automated stations are designed to more precisely forecast storms and collect weather data. They’re being installed in a grid-like pattern every 20 square miles or so.

Picking spots for the stations, it turns out, is not that simple, said those overseeing the weather data system.

Logistics, like getting power and Ethernet to the superstations, play a big part in siting the statewide weather system, especially the enhanced stations like the one planned at UB.

Unlike the 125 standard stations that will run exclusively on solar energy, the 17 enhanced stations require access to utility power and must also be within 1,650 feet from a standard station, said Jerald Brotzge, the Mesonet’s program manager based at its headquarters at the University at Albany.

“The UB North site provides a location where we can deploy both the standard and enhanced sensors together,” Brotzge said. “Most of our standard site locations are remote, far from utility power or Ethernet, and so placement of an enhanced station at most of our standard site locations is not possible.

“We are still working through the approval process for the UB North site, so that location is still subject to change,” Brotzge added.

It’s possible the enhanced station could be located somewhere else if a lease agreement isn’t settled soon, he said.

“But that being said, the Buffalo area will receive an enhanced station, whether or not that’s on UB property,” Brotzge said.

Siting challenge

In January 2014, the Department of Homeland Security established the New York State Early Warning Weather Detection System. The centerpiece of the system will be the New York State Mesonet, a network of 125 weather stations across the state, with at least one site in every county. Each site will measure temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction, pressure, radiation, and soil information.

Each station’s suite of automated sensors collects data every three to thirty seconds. The data is then packaged into 5 minute averages and transmitted in real time to a central facility located at the University at Albany.

While at the University at Albany, data from all sites are processed into files and then disseminated, including to the National Weather Service and the New York State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services.

The New York State Mesonet, funded by the Federal Emergency Management Administration, complements the existing 27 automated stations maintained by the National Weather Service and expands the number of sites collecting weather data.

“Siting has been the biggest challenge,” Brotzge said.

Finding the snowiest spot for the superstation in one of the snowiest spots, for example, could be just the luck of the draw.

During the November 2014 storm, more than 80 inches of snow fell in a couple of days in the town of Hamburg, at times at rates of 3 to 5 inches an hour.

Ground zero during the October Surprise of 2006 was in Snyder and northern Cheektowaga, where nearly 2 feet of heavy, wet snow felled thousands of trees.

Downtown Buffalo took the brunt of an afternoon storm in November 2000 that dropped 2 feet of snow over nine hours, paralyzing rush-hour traffic.

The infamous Blizzard of 1977 pretty much crushed the entire region.

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Brotzge, hired by the state to set up the system, spent 20 years with the Oklahoma Mesonet program. He said finding the best places here – and across the state – has proven the biggest hurdle so far.

Unlike Oklahoma, New York State has a mixed topography that’s both heavily forested while densely populated in its urban centers.

The criteria for evenly spreading Mesonet stations around the state centered around finding an expanse of flat land outside of flood zones, wetlands and away from large bodies of water that could skew meteorological data, officials said.

Neaverth said Albany approached county emergency officials last year and asked them for a list of county facilities where a Mesonet site might be placed.

When the state revealed its list of sites, only a few were in Erie County.

County officials were puzzled, given the county’s vulnerability to lake-effect weather.

“I was a little bit surprised there weren’t some additional sites, but maybe that is coming down the road,” Neaverth said.

As for the number of sites, it’s a delicate balance. Experts advise less is more.

It something developers at the Oklahoma Mesonet learned since installing one of the nation’s first such systems in 1994.

“Putting in the site, that’s the easy part,” said Christopher A. Fiebrich, associate director and climatological survey manager of the Oklahoma Mesonet.

“Keeping the site maintained and calibrated, keeping the power going and communication going? That’s the difficult part in the long-term,” Fiebrich said. “We really wanted quality over quantity.”

Up and running

The region’s first weather stations went online in Batavia and in the Cattaraugus County village of Delevan. Stations in Fredonia and Brant came online last week.

Each county in the state will have at least one station. Other stations will be installed in East Aurora, Newfane, Medina and Warsaw.

Across the state so far, 36 of the 125 standard weather stations are operational. The enhanced stations are a few months away from going online.

The standard 30-foot-tall metal Mesonet site looks like a baby cell phone tower with a bunch of gadgetry. Each station is on a 33-by-33-foot plot of fenced-in land.

New York joins about 10 other states with Mesonet systems, but the one here will be the most detailed and modern of the bunch.

The National Weather Service operates 27 automated surface observing system stations in New York State that take the temperature, precipitation, wind direction and speed, air pressure and other readings.

When finished, the New York State Mesonet will have nearly five times that number.

“I think that will make a huge difference,” said Stephen Vermette, a climatology professor at Buffalo State.

All of the sites will have standard monitors to provide data on temperature, relative humidity, wind speed and direction, air pressure precipitation and solar radiation.

That means there will be 125 more rain gauges to help predict hydrological changes to creeks and streams.

And, unlike the automated federal stations, Mesonet will also measure frost at depths of 2, 10 and 20 inches.

“That data is virtually non-existent across New York State,” said Raymond O’Keefe, the meteorologist in charge of the Albany bureau of the National Weather Service. “That information is extremely important for us.”

In Albany, where numerous Mesonet sites went online earlier this year, weather service forecasters ingested data and used it in forecasting.

O’Keefe said the frost depth data was used to help forecast precipitation runoff in one instance.

In February, when cold air seeped southward from northern New York, the Mesonet system helped federal forecasters determine whether the precipitation was rain, snow, sleet or freezing rain and the location of the freezing line, O’Keefe said.

That was the vision of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who announced Mesonet in early 2014 after Superstorm Sandy ravaged the New York City area a little more than a year earlier. The governor reiterated the state’s need for improved weather observations and real-time data in Buffalo during the double lake-effect snowstorms of November 2014.

Besides its aid in forecasting, the system will also help those in the aviation, agriculture, energy and public safety fields.

The system will also provide real-time data about soil moisture, which will help farmers determine fertilizer applications and impact growing decisions.

For highway superintendents and emergency managers like Neaverth, it allows for better preparation and on-the-fly adjustments during severe storms.

“It’s more vital, real-time data from more locations,” Neaverth said. “It gives us the opportunity ... to utilize our resources more efficiently.”

The enhanced stations, like the one planned at UB, will have vertical profiling capabilities to get detailed atmospheric conditions including temperature, barometric pressure, humidity and wind direction up to 3 miles above the ground.

Each enhanced station will be able to show wind direction, shear and other atmospheric conditions that pilots need to know.

“That’s something we have never had access to,” O’Keefe said. “These stations will be revolutionary.”

Besides the planned enhanced site at UB, another one is planned in Clymer.

Data every 5 minutes

The National Weather Service launches weather balloons at 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. every day in Buffalo, Albany and on Long Island.

The balloons rise through the sky, sending back meteorological data about what’s going on at various heights in the atmosphere.

It’s an atmospheric profile the enhanced weather stations, using laser and microwave technology, will accomplish from the ground every five minutes.

“It will be having a balloon up every five minutes at 17 sites, 24/7,” Brotzge said.

For forecasters, that’s the difference between six pieces of data and 4,896 pieces of data.

“All of this information can be funneled into high resolution, weather prediction models,” O’Keefe said.

The enhanced station is equipped with LiDAR, microwave radiometer and a sun photometer.

Having a nearly real-time picture of what’s going on in the sky is crucial for early-warning forecasting. Atmospheric instability can quickly give rise to life-threatening hazards like severe thunderstorms, intense winter weather or strong wind shear that could imperil aircraft.

“The observations will be very valuable for lake-effect snow, summer thunderstorms, damaging winds,” O’Keefe said.

It’ll be valuable, certainly. But, local experts said, maybe not as valuable as it could be.

“I would like to have something along the lakeshore,” Vermette said.

email: tpignataro@buffnews.com