May 19 marks 20th anniversary of the first West Texas mesonet in - FOX34 Lubbock

May 19 marks 20th anniversary of the first West Texas mesonet installation

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LUBBOCK, Texas -

News release:

Lubbock and the South Plains are accustomed to severe weather. In addition to the 264 days of sunshine annually, the region also sees tornadoes to hail, haboobs, heat waves and blizzards. Despite the sometimes unpredictable climate, Texas Tech University’s National Wind Institute (NWI) has been instrumental in keeping West Texas informed for the past 20 years with its West Texas Mesonet towers.

In 1999, NWI secured federal funding to build mesonet towers. Twenty years ago today (May 19), the very first mesonet tower went live at the former Reese Air Force Base – now known as the Reese Technology Center – in western Lubbock County. Since then, 131 total stations have been added covering 79 counties in three states: Texas, New Mexico and Colorado.

“When we originally started this project, there was very little weather data available to farmers or the public,” said Wes Burgett, manager of the West Texas Mesonet. “Before 1999, there were only three weather stations between Lubbock and Amarillo. Now, there are 131 covering the whole area. We wanted to provide the public, the community and the National Weather Service, warnings with all of our storms. If there’s a storm coming in, before, we didn’t know where it was without radar between Clovis and Lubbock. Now, there are multiple stations that can tell us what’s going on at that location as the storm’s getting closer.”

The mesonet towers provide real-time data, including wind speed and direction at different levels, air temperatures at different levels, humidity and dew point, solar radiation, rainfall, barometric pressure and climate histories. Agricultural data includes soil temperature and moisture at different levels, leaf wetness and evapotranspiration.

“Before the network of mesonet towers were installed, we had huge gaps in the weather observations,” said Jody James, warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service. “We would have to guess. We did have satellite imagery back then, although it was rather crude compared to what we have now. But if a front was coming down out of the Panhandle, we would know when it got through Amarillo, then we would have to wait until it got to Lubbock and guess it’s somewhere in between. So, the resolution of the mesonet really allowed us to not only see better spatially and temporally, but also see phenomena that we would have missed otherwise, like a severe thunderstorm gust.”

The data the mesonet towers collect aren’t just for meteorologists. Data is available on the mesonet web page, which is updated in real time every five minutes. In comparison, traditional surface observation systems update once an hour, James said.

“The data collected from a mesonet station is very valuable,” he said. “It’s collecting information almost continuously and then, depending on what data the stream is going to, some of it may be one minute, some of them maybe five minutes. But that is tremendously valuable to see it on that timescale, especially with things like wind shifts.”

While the average person may not care about the wind shifting from the north to the south, that information can come in handy for first responders.

“Firefighters might be battling a grass fire in Lubbock County, or one of the surrounding counties, and we see a wind shift coming in,” James said. “It may not be anything significant to most people. Maybe it’s just outflows from a thunderstorm that’s going to shift winds from south to north for a couple of hours. Those fighting on the fire line, if they don’t know that wind shift’s coming, they’re going to be in the wrong place when the wind shifts and that fire starts going the opposite direction. So, one thing that’s been very useful about the mesonet is giving information like that to some of the folks in the fire services.”

The agricultural data the mesonet towers collect help the farming community, too.

“The temperature at the different soil depths, that’s valuable for planting cotton, for example,” James said. “We also watch when the sensors show the amount of moisture in the soil. So, we can see in a general sense across the area which sites maybe are moist at 2 inches and maybe dry down at 8 inches or deeper.”

Burgett notes that, even though anyone can access the information online, there also is an iPhone app that makes retrieving the information even easier.

“People can get updates from the iPhone app, and we’re currently working on an Android version,” he said. “Our app actually received a 2018 Excellence in IT Innovation Award through Texas Tech’s Office of the Chief Information Officer/Information Technology Division. We’re very proud of it.”

Click here to read more about how the West Texas Mesonet towers have helped Lubbock and the South Plains.

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