I-Team: Can Cuomo's $23 Million Weather Detection System Predict the Next Sandy?

After a series of devastating hurricanes, coastal storms and blizzards, Gov. Cuomo promised to install a network of weather stations that will give New Yorkers early warning when disaster is about to strike.

The $23 million network, called a "mesonet," will consist of 125 weather observation towers strategically installed across the state. The system is already partially up and running, but it is not clear the network can predict approaching storms any better than the National Weather Service already does.

"The mesonet system really is designed not [as] a predictive tool," said Kevin Wisely, Director of the NYS Emergency Management Office. "It is a tool that is going to provide current weather conditions."

According to Wisely, the mesonet is not substitute for the National Weather Service. Indeed, mesonet data must be crunched by NWS computers. He also said the mesonet should not be thought of as an early warning system.

"It's a 'today’ system," Wisely said. "The mesonet is measuring the weather that is occurring in a particular area."

But in his 2014 State of the State Address, Cuomo suggested the mesonet would provide early storm warnings superior to National Weather Service forecasts. 

"Early detection will literally save lives and we haven't been getting the correct information early enough," he said.

Later that year, after a snowstorm hobbled western New York, Cuomo again questioned NWS forecasts.

"The weather service was off," he told reporters. "We're putting in our own weather detection system."

Research on the forecasting impact of mesonets is scant.

A 2013 study co-authored by David Stensrud, now a Penn State professor of meteorology, found the impact of mesonet data is “largely undetermined.”

A 2010 study co-authored by Stanley Benjamin of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, concluded mesonet observations “add little or no impact to 3 or 6-hour lower tropospheric wind forecasts.” Another analysis co-authored by Benjamin looked at the value of mesonet observations on temperature forecasts.” He found “they added very little.”

Despite a lack of proof showing mesonets help with forecasting, meteorologists seem to agree the state-run weather networks can be useful in so-called “now-casting,” providing real-time information about severe weather happening right now. 

Dr. David Robinson, the New Jersey state climatologist, said now-casting can be essential when emergency managers are trying to figure out what regions of a county might be getting pounded by the worst conditions at any given moment. 

“You can follow a squall line across New York state, seeing it come in from the west, see the speed it’s moving, see the intensity of the winds, see the magnitude of the rainfall,” Robinson said. “That will allow people to prepare to get out of harm’s way.”

Even Stensrud and Benjamin, the researchers who found mesonets have little impact on forecasting, told the I-Team they believe Oklahoma’s mesonet has yielded positive value.

“Is [the mesonet] going to make a difference on a hurricane in Virginia? I don’t know. The most likely answer is probably not,” Stensrud said. “But if you talk to forecasters in the National Weather Service, they’ll tell you they use the mesonet in Oklahoma a lot and are convinced it does help them provide accurate warnings to the public.”

“There could be effects on very short-range 30-minute forecasts,” Benjamin said. “It’s going to make a difference in localized storms and localized parts of larger storms."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is funding the entire cost of New York’s mesonet. Currently about 100 of the 125 towers are installed and reporting information to the National Weather Service.

When asked about his previous jabs at the National Weather Service, Cuomo said he considers the agency a partner in the mesonet project.

“I once made the mistake of – not criticizing – but critiquing weather forecasts and their accuracy,” Cuomo said. “I was roundly chastised. So I’ll leave that alone.”

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