Director of WKU weather monitoring network explains purpose to panel


FRANKFORT, Ky. (KT) --  The head of a small agency at Western Kentucky University, partially funded by state tax dollars, appeared before a legislative committee Wednesday.


Dr. Stuart Foster, director of the Kentucky Mesonet, described its purpose to the Interim Joint Local Government Committee.

“It’s an automated weather monitoring network, sufficient to be able to capture weather that is happening, like what we’ve seen the last couple days with thunderstorms affecting one county but not another,” he said.

Foster says the data, which is taken every five minutes, is fed to the National Weather Service and emergency managers across the state; and is also available to the general public.  The weather service uses the data to see what is actually happening on the ground, in addition to what the radar is showing in the sky, when issuing weather warnings.  It also collects climate data that aids in future weather forecasting

The Kentucky Mesonet was established in 2006 with a federal grant from NOAA and currently has 69 stations across the state with more in the process of being added.

Foster said Kentucky is one of three states in the country with such a statewide network.  “Oklahoma was the first, Kentucky was the second, and since we built our network, New York has become the third.”

They monitor several things, Foster said, rattling them off. “Air temperature, precipitation, a leaf wetness sensor that has relevance to agriculture, solar radiation, relative humidity, along with wind speed and direction.”

He says the last two are the most important to their partners at the National Weather Service.

“When they need to make decisions about when to issue severe thunderstorm warnings, they want to see what those wind speeds are and whether the storms are reaching severe levels on the ground.”

Foster cited an example from Tuesday’s weather.  “Moving east from Crittenden County, we had a storm that had 63-mile per hour winds at the surface.  That gives confirmation to the weather service that we have a serious situation.  Without that, they’re looking at the radar and guessing what might be happening.”

More instruments are being added to the network, Foster said.  “We’re adding soil temperature and soil moisture probes at many of our sites, measuring conditions down as far as 40 inches; as well as barometers, cameras, and multi-level temperature equipment, which takes readings at several levels above the ground.”

They are also participating in the Drought Early Warning System.  “After the 2012 drought, there’s a lot of concern about being able to identify droughts in an early stage, so we can hopefully be prepared to make better decisions on how to handle them,” Foster said. “We can’t eliminate droughts, but we can make better management decisions as they are developing.”   

The Kentucky Mesonet was one of about 70 programs that Gov. Matt Bevin removed funding from when he presented his two-year budget to the General Assembly.  However, lawmakers restored the $750,000 to the program in the version that was eventually enacted.


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