While making boneheaded comments about forecasts leading up to Buffalo's seven feet of snow last week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo mentioned that the state is developing a "weather detection system" that would have improved the city's snow forecasts. Here's why he's (mostly) wrong.
Cuomo drew the ire of the weather community yesterday after he accused meteorologists of screwing up their forecasts in advance of the major lake effect snow event. In the middle of his wildly irresponsible comments about the National Weather Service's performance, he started talking about a weather detection system he wants to install across New York:
"We're putting in our own weather detection system, because when the weather detection is wrong, it's not an annoyance anymore because you're dressed improperly. When the weather detection is off, you don't know a storm is coming, you don't have a chance to prepare, and it can make a significant difference. And people can actually die. So, we didn't have notice of the snow coming down the way it did, and the information we had was wrong."
I covered in some detail yesterday how unbelievably incorrect Cuomo's comments were, but the thing that stuck about his statements was that "weather detection system." The governor makes it sound like it's the be-all and end-all of weather observations, but it wouldn't have made a lick of difference in Buffalo last week.
The system Cuomo wants to install across the state is called a "mesonet," or a dense system of automated weather stations that records current weather conditions. The term "mesonet" comes from "mesoscale network;" mesoscale meteorology deals with regional weather events such as thunderstorms, lake effect snow, sea breezes, and other small-scale features.
Mesonets prove extremely valuable as they collect a treasure trove of weather data—air temperature, air moisture, wind, rainfall, snowfall, sky conditions, air pressure, solar radiation, soil moisture, soil temperature...just about every data point you could ever want can be collected from these stations.
The two states with the most widely-known mesonet installations are Oklahoma and Iowa, though several other states and universities maintain their own networks as well. Perhaps the most well-known system of all is the network of more than 30,000 personal weather stations hosted on Weather Underground's website. However, information from a good number of these stations may not be accurate. Without quality control, many of these weather stations may be placed near buildings, trees, roads, and other influences that could negatively affect the quality of temperature, wind, and precipitation data.
New York's planned mesonet will consist of more than 120 stations; the system is being installed as a direct result of Hurricane Sandy and at a cost $23.6 million. The official name of the installation—"New York State Early Warning Weather Detection System"—is a misnomer when you realize that mesonets don't directly help you predict the weather.
These networks are wonderful for nowcasting events such as frontal passages—the rapid updates let you watch a cold front move through the state nearly in real time. However, data collected is more useful for seeing what's happening now, what's on the way over the next few hours, and what's happened in the past.
The only way mesonet data truly helps meteorologists produce forecasts is that weather models can ingest current weather conditions collected by stations in the mesonet. Weather models require "initialization" before they run—you have to plug current surface and upper-level conditions into the model so it knows where to start creating its forecasts. Feeding weather models more surface weather data can help the models produce more accurate guidance for forecasters, which in turn can lead to more accurate forecasts.
That's how the mesonet could help forecasts in the future, but Cuomo's comments make it sound like a magic solution to cure all of his state's weather woes. If New York had this mesonet installation in place for last week's blockbuster lake effect snowstorm, it wouldn't have made any difference. Forecasters did an excellent job as it is—all the station would have done is told forecasters that it's windy and it's snowing, confirming their predictions. Besides, data from Doppler weather radar can tell us more about snowfall rates than sparsely-placed observation stations could ever hope of providing.
It's great that New York is installing more than one hundred weather stations across the state. A mesonet is going to provide us useful information in the future, and it's going aid researchers and meteorologists when they want to better understand weather systems that impact New York. However, Cuomo's implication that a system of automated weather observation stations could have helped improve the already-great lake effect snow forecasts in Buffalo last week is dubious at best.