is the only surface
Dev Dutta Niyogi
Make that past tense.
With the increasing availability of real-time data on weather conditions
and trends — from annual summaries to monthly, daily or hourly observations
of meteorological variables — populations will be more prepared for
and less at the mercy of the elements. And in North Carolina, where
the topographical variety gives the greatest climate variability of
any state east of the Mississippi, that’s an invaluable resource.
With the increasing availability of real-time data on weather conditions and trends — from annual summaries to monthly, daily or hourly observations of meteorological variables — populations will be more prepared for and less at the mercy of the elements. And in North Carolina, where the topographical variety gives the greatest climate variability of any state east of the Mississippi, that’s an invaluable resource.
At the forefront of facilitating these capabilities is the North Carolina Environment and Climate Observing Network (ECO Net), a developing network that will combine existing weather and environmental networks in North Carolina to produce enhanced analysis provided by continuous surface monitoring.
Just who needs this information? “Everybody,” says Dr. Dev Dutta Niyogi, meteorologist in the Department of Horticultural Science and assistant state climatologist. Data from the system hold the promise of saving lives and millions of dollars every year for taxpayers, farmers and businesses. The information will help in the management of natural resources, protection of the environment and reduction of energy consumption, while providing a valuable contribution to agriculture, public health and severe weather response activities.
In its full capacity, the ECO Net will be a state-of-the-art network of more than 100 weather and environmental observing stations across North Carolina, with a minimum of one in each county.
Niyogi has led efforts to install the first five new ECO Net stations as well as the upgrade of the 17 existing Agricultural Weather Network (AgNet) sites to include 10-meter towers and soil moisture sensors to make them compatible with World Meteorological Organization (WMO) standards.
“We’ve also improved communications techniques, which included making the data readily available. We put this information on a Web page every hour, every day, in a user-friendly format” says Niyogi.
“The unique thing is that this is the only surface weather data that is available to North Carolina emergency operations in real time.”
The data will supply not weather forecasts but seasonal outlooks through observations of trends. With the information that is being compiled, users can look up what happened in a locale, weather-wise, on a given day or hour in order to know what can happen under particular circumstances.
Specific beneficiaries include lawyers who want to know what the conditions were at a certain hour on a certain day of an auto accident being litigated, contractors trying to nail down building schedules, Pan-Am Games planners trying to determine weather-related stresses likely to befall athletes, or even surfers looking for offshore conditions that will yield the best waves.
Citizens from across the state stand to benefit from the ECO Net’s real-time information on wind, temperature, humidity, precipitation and soil moisture. Clients will include the University of North Carolina system, K-12 schools, government agencies, media, libraries and museums, legal and insurance companies and other private industries.
But prominent among all these, Niyogi says, are the agricultural clientele.
In fact, state climatologist Dr. Sethu Raman, N.C. State professor of marine, earth and atmospheric sciences, estimates that the fully operational ECO Net will help the state and its citizens save as much as $91 million annually through improvements in crop and pest management, drought forecasting, economic development, emergency management, energy planning and tourism.
Created and still supported by the N.C. Agricultural Research Service (NCARS), the AgNet is a group of 17 automated weather stations for collecting weather data throughout the state. These stations are located at the College’s outlying agricultural research stations and field laboratories across North Carolina.
AgNet primarily has provided farmers with information about agricultural climate conditions. The original stations were designed and built by the College’s Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering under the leadership of Dr. James H. Young. In 1991, the network was transferred to the N.C. Agricultural Weather Program and to Dr. Katharine Perry, professor of horticultural science and now assistant dean of the College. She upgraded the operation and first made its data available on World Wide Web. In 1997, the network was transferred to the State Climate Office (SCO) of North Carolina, a public service center, under a cooperative arrangement between the SCO and the NCARS.
At the stations, agro-meteorological variables are measured every hour throughout the year. The parameters measured include wind speed, wind direction, rainfall, air temperature, soil temperature, relative humidity, atmospheric pressure, photosynthetically active radiation and net radiation. The data are updated every day at 5 a.m. (and, during emergencies, every hour) on the SCO Web site (http://www.nc-climate.ncsu.edu).
While AgNet is the primary foundation for the ECO Net system, other existing weather stations will be utilized to provide detailed environmental information. These include the U.S. Forest Service, the National Weather Service and the N.C. Department of Transportation.
Partners contributing to ECO Net range from the universitywide multidisciplinary research to state agencies (including the Division of Air Quality, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services) to the federal level with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Climate Data Center in Asheville.
It is appropriate that the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is a leading partner in creating this network, Niyogi says. “The College’s perspective is broad, including not just the agricultural, but the environmental, the biotechnological and the ecological. ECO Net fits in well with that.”
The ECO Net is “truly a multifaceted, multidisciplinary group effort,” he adds. “There is first of all the pivotal support from Dr. Johnny Wynne, director of NCARS, along with the staff and computer support through Dean Daniel Solomon of the College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences and Dr. Richard Patty, head of the Department of Marine, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, over the foundation laid by Dr. Perry.”
Niyogi also acknowledges “the vision of Dr. Raman, and coordinated efforts of [staff members] Syed Ameenulla, Ryan Boyles and various graduate and undergraduate students at the State Climate Office.”
Already the value of their work is tremendous, he says.
“Once you learn the climatology of a region, once you have this hourly information, you can predict what will happen under episodes such as El Niño. For instance, we predicted that there would be more precipitation on the coast and dryer conditions in the mountains, which was what we actually saw.”
Every region has a climatology that is modulated by day-to-day weather, says Niyogi, “so once we know the climatology, through recorded observations, we have a feel of what to expect.”
For example, when a hurricane makes landfall, what it will do can vary, depending on the soil moisture and soil temperature of a region.
“Only this network provides soil moisture and soil temperature measurements,” says Niyogi, “and those are critical variables.”
They can be used to indicate propensity for drought or high probability of frosting when a certain weather pattern hits. “When you have patterns such as dry conditions in one region and wet conditions in another across the state,” Niyogi explains, “that can lead to enhanced convection.”
Convection is what creates a sea breeze — and much more. It occurs as two different air masses meet at a boundary, leading to clouds and potentially severe weather on a large scale. In the central United States such conditions can turn thunderstorms into tornadoes. So if surface conditions that enhance convection are monitored, certain extremes of weather can be expected — and prepared for.
In 1996, Hurricane Fran gained force as it moved into the Triangle where the soil was unevenly dry and air conditions were ripe for violent winds. Raman, director of the SCO, says, “This network could have helped in terms of predicting that type of intense wind and rain.” For example, he adds, local officials could have let out water from dams, lessening flood damage that followed the storms.
In essence, weather information can itself be measured in degrees of relevance and application: short-term, such as for spraying conditions or control burning; intermediate, including ecological effects related to watershed loading and pesticide use; and long-term, where the effects come in six to eight months or more, such as with a drought, the effects of El Niño — or even gradual global warming conditions.
Models provide only a broad picture, Niyogi says. Regions and pockets could vary even in a global warming scenario.
“Many people in town hall meetings or schools ask me questions about global phenomena such as the ozone hole. And they want to know, ‘How does that affect me?’ People want to know about their own backyard, not what’s happening at the airport. The fact of a local fish industry being wiped out is more immediately important to them than glacial melting. However, scenarios of microscale effects of global events are not yet available, and we need to start generating those.
“With ECO Net, we ultimately
will do such microscale studies in our own backyard.”