New York’s weather experiment

ALBANY, N.Y. (WIVB) — New York state leaders used $30 million in grant money from FEMA to pay for a new system of weather monitoring equipment. They modeled their Mesonet after programs used in Tornado Alley. New York’s system has 125 local monitoring locations, including several in our area.

Your federal taxes paid for the project, but currently, the state refuses to allow News 4 and other news organizations to use the data without paying. Key questions also remain about who will fund ongoing maintenance for the weather stations.

The Genesis for the project

Governor Andrew Cuomo has long championed this project. He has spoken about the dangers to people and property posed by stronger storms and more severe weather. An online video clip from 2013 shows the governor saying, “…It’s undeniable that the frequency of extreme weather conditions is up, and we’re going to have to learn from that.”

During a tour of Lackawanna after “Snowvember,” Gov. Cuomo famously blasted the National Weather Service for botching the forecast for the historic lake effect storm.

“It came earlier than they forecasted, and it came at a higher volume than they forecasted,” Cuomo said in 2014. He later backtracked and apologized to the meteorologists, but the governor moved forward with plans to create his own statewide weather network.

“We want more and precise information as soon as possible. We will have more sensors than what the National Weather Service has,” Cuomo proclaimed.

The Mesonet website features the vision for the program:

“The mission of the New York State (NYS) Mesonet is to operate a world-class environmental monitoring network and deliver high-quality observations and timely value-added products to New York State residents and workers in order to support state decision makers, to enhance public safety and education, and to stimulate advances in resource management, agriculture, industry, and research.”

RELATED | See 4 Warn Meteorologist Kaylee Wendt’s 2016 report about Mesonet here.

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125 Statewide locations

We found one of the new monitoring stations nestled in a vineyard near Burt, about a mile from the shores of Lake Ontario in northern Niagara County. “We were very interested in getting [our own] weather station, and then, this happened, and it couldn’t be a better situation,” Ann Schulze explained to News 4.

She says meteorologists from the Mesonet program approached her and her husband Martin about the location. Their land sits in a unique micro-climate, above the escarpment. The Schulzes say it’s one of the driest agricultural spots in all of the state.

“What we get is the temperature, the precipitation, the soil temperature at different depths,” Schulze said. Those are key factors that affect planting, spraying and harvesting of their grapes. “Grapes are deep-rooted. This is sandy loam soil, so they don’t need to be watered.”

The Schulze family founded the winery ten years ago, and they say this reliable weather data puts them in a perfect position to continue flourishing. They signed a contract with the state but receive only the data; they don’t get any money for hosting the weather lab on their land.

“We just bring up our app, and there [the information] is,” Ann said with a smile. “This couldn’t be better.”

A forecaster’s perspective

“It’s something that really I wish New York and the Weather Service had done 100 years ago,” Chief 4 Warn Meteorologist Todd Santos suggested. He believes the additional statewide data will be beneficial.

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“The public can go to these sites anytime, and I do on my own, and see what’s going on for current conditions. I mean this is high level scientific equipment,” Santos said.

As we mentioned earlier in this story, your federal tax dollars (in the form of grants) paid for the equipment, but the state won’t allow News 4 to share the data on air or online. “They did all of this stuff, and they didn’t really talk to anybody, and now I’m looking for somebody to work with us,” Santos said.

Tight-lighted researchers

News 4 spent weeks corresponding with the University at Albany trying to get an interview. Their staff administers the Mesonet program. Eventually, a spokesperson told us no one from the project could answer our questions. He told us to try back in several months.

“New York state basically had to get in the business of selling weather data, and some states have had different ways of doing it. Everyone has different ways of doing it. And there likely will be some type of growing pains. It’s going to take time to get everything to work right,” Santos offered.

The state website again offers a clear warning that the data may not be shared: “All New York State Mesonet data are copyrighted and protected as the intellectual property of the Mesonet.”

Santos remains optimistic the extra data will reveal long-term temperature trends. It could also bolster short-term forecasts for lake effect snow. “We’re able to use really high quality data – and feed that into models which can predict things like lake effect – and that actually will push the science – as the modeling gets involved,” Santos suggested.

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