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States building independent weather monitoring networks to be better prepared for major storms

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Posted at 11:09 AM, Dec 12, 2022

Whether it is sudden rural flooding, extreme levels of snowfall or the dangerous combination of heat and wind, protecting people from Mother Nature starts with devices that are rarely seen.

A team at Tennessee Technological University built a small water sensor that is being installed near bodies of water in Tennessee that are currently not monitored for flooding.

The small sensor costs about $500, which is much cheaper than a standard U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) gauge. It can cost as much as $25,000. USGS gauges are typically placed near large bodies of water.

Associate professor Alfred Kalyanapu and his team are looking for more partners and grants to put more sensors in new places and improve the technology.

Other states are building out their own weather monitoring networks. Alex Brown, an environmental reporter with the Pew Charitable Trusts nonprofit, Stateline, says a lot of the effort is motivated by increasing severe weather events.

Mesonets are placed in areas where the National Weather Service doesn’t have stations.

“Especially in states where you have a lot of different climate zones or varying topography, you can have some pretty widely varying conditions between those stations," Brown said.

Oklahoma was first to build a state mesonet system. Other states followed after flying blind during major weather events. Maryland and Hawaii were two of the latest states to come on board. Now, as many as 38 states have their own state-run mesonet program.

Schools and agriculture have also come to rely on them.

“When to spray pesticides based on how the wind is blowing. When it might not be safe to have athletes practicing outside. Some utilities are paying for their own mesonets just so they can understand wildfire risk a little better and know when they might need to shut off some power lines," Brown said.

The National Weather Service pays states for the weather data collected by their mesonet programs.

Brown says that information will eventually become historical data as the impact of climate change is studied at a more local level.