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February 27, 2004

Agronomists provide link in storm forecasting

Daryl Herzmann and Raymond Arritt at a weather collection
Daryl Herzmann (left), who maintains the Mesonet, and agronomy professor Raymond Arritt, principal investigator on the Mesonet project, at a weather collection station similar to what the KCCI-TV SchoolNet stations offer. Photo by Bob Elbert.
by Melea Licht, agronomy communications
Janis Diehl heard the storm warning via weather radio as she worked in the Story County Emergency Management office.

"The storm really sneaked up on us. People in Nevada were calling 911 wanting to know what was going on. When the warning was issued, everyone calmed down. It was so much nicer to know what was going on, what was to come and how much danger we were in," Diehl said.

The June 18 storm last summer downed power lines and trees and dropped an inch of rain in a few minutes. It ended shortly after the warning was issued. No one was injured.

Diehl didn't know that one link helping to keep her informed about severe weather was the Iowa State agronomy department.

Iowa State researchers relay weather data from KCCI-TV "SchoolNet 8" stations to the National Weather Service station in Johnston through the Iowa Environmental Mesonet, a partnership of government, private and academic units focused on environmental monitoring and prediction. The partnership is administered from the Iowa State campus by the agronomy department. It was created in 2001 to develop a denser network of weather data for agriculture, but its largest impact has been improving severe weather warnings.

SchoolNet 8 is a collection of 50-plus weather observing stations located at schools throughout central Iowa that report, via the Internet, live information about temperature; wind direction, speed and gust speed; wind chill, precipitation and barometric pressure.

Mesonet software monitors SchoolNet station data and relays observations meeting severe weather criteria to the National Weather Service, where it's used in forming severe weather warnings.

Daryl Herzmann, an Iowa State ag meteorology program assistant, maintains the Mesonet.

The turn-around time for the Nevada storm, from observation to issuing the warning, was two minutes, Herzmann said.

"At 12:30 p.m., the radar didn't show anything over the city of Nevada. By 12:35 p.m., a popcorn storm blew up over the town and triggered a Mesonet response, alerting the National Weather Service of the dangerous wind conditions. The weather service issued a severe weather warning to Story County residents by 12:37 p.m," he said.

Without the Mesonet connection, the severe wind gust that triggered the warning would not have been relayed to the National Weather Service so quickly.

The Mesonet continually monitors observations from the SchoolNet stations. Every minute, observations are checked for wind gusts higher than 50 mph and, if found, automatically sent to the National Weather Service within 90 seconds. Prior to the Mesonet, KCCI passed observations to the weather service manually.

"The Mesonet has made the KCCI SchoolNet an important part of the storm warning decision-making process," said John McLaughlin, chief meteorologist at KCCI-TV. "The ability to be alerted instantly to wind gusts over 50 mph, along with the automatic alerts sent to the National Weather Service, make this system a first in the country. There is no doubt this has resulted in better emergency weather information for the public."

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