Unmanned Weatherman

Remote stations provide up-to-date weather data

Next to baseball, talking about the weather may well be our favorite national pastime. Fact is, we could hardly avoid talking about weather even if we wanted to. Weather directly impacts us every day of our lives. It dictates how we dress in the morning, what activities we plan, and when we can do them. Yet there are those upon whom weather has an even stronger impact — farmers. Colorado farmers plan nearly everything around weather patterns. A quick reaction to the latest turn in weather can mean the difference between success or failure of a whole year.

Thomas McKee, who directs the Colorado Climate Center, is dedicated to gathering and distributing weather information that helps farmers react more effectively to the Colorado's rapidly shifting climate.

"We really can't do much about the weather itself, but we do provide weather-related information that producers must have," says McKee. In addition to moisture, temperature, and humidity information, McKee says crop producers often want timely data about growing-degree days, which relates to temperature conditions suitable for plant growth, and evapotranspiration, which relates to moisture availability and disappearance through evaporation.

"Perhaps the most useful thing we do is gather this weather information from all over the state, compile it, and then deliver it back quickly to producers through high technology," he says.

Most of the data is gathered from a system of 31 unmanned weather monitoring stations located in major crop growing areas throughout the state. Named the Colorado Agricultural Meteorological Network, or COAGMET, the system is jointly funded by the Colorado Agricultural Experiment Station, agricultural commodity groups, and the Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These solar/battery-powered stations collect and continuously store data on temperature, relative humidity, wind direction and speed, solar radiation, precipitation, and soil temperature. A computer on the Colorado State campus retrieves the information each night by cellular phone. Then it's made available to farmers through a national commercial satellite subscription information service called Data Transmission Network, and through a web page maintained by the Colorado Climate Center. McKee says recent figures show the web page receives about 10,000 visits per month.

Equally important, though, is a long-term look at Colorado's weather, especially precipitation trends. McKee pioneered the application of a Standardized Precipitation Index to monitor dry and wet conditions and establish a history of these conditions in the state. This index tracks moisture accumulations in multiple time scales at 3-, 6-, 12-, 24-, and 48- month intervals. Data is gathered primarily by the Colorado Climate Center and the National Climatic Data Center. Precipitation is measured in snowpack, streamflow, reservoir storage, soil moisture, and groundwater supplies. The index helps Colorado's state government monitor water supplies critical to agriculture and urban areas, and is used at periodic meetings of the State Water Availability Task Force.

Weather data collection is vital to many segments of Colorado's economy. McKee says farmers who have up-to-date information are better prepared to deal with changing growing conditions and problems, including those that spur costly diseases (see story). And for engineers and planners who work with water resources, precipitation and other climatic data are critical.