The mesonet towers provide important weather information to West Texas and the South Plains.
Lubbock and the South Plains are accustomed to severe weather. In addition to the 264 days of sunshine annually, the region also sees tornadoes, 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."
Providing real-time data
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 stream the data 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."
The people of West Texas make finding locations for new towers easy for Burgett.
"I get so many requests to install towers that I don't even look for stations anymore," Burgett laughed. "I have a long list where, if we think it will help the network and the landowner agrees, I do a handshake agreement with them that we'll put the station there. If they ever end up wanting us to move it, it gets moved. I've only ever had to move two stations in 20 years. A handshake means a lot out here in West Texas."
In order to keep the mesonet towers in working condition, and with the towers being so far spread out, Burgett relies on a network of community volunteers and landowners to notify him if there's an issue.
"I have a volunteer army that helps me maintain all of this stuff," he said. "It's really neat that the community and the landowners help keep an eye on stuff for me. They'll call me when they see something. Sometimes, I can't always tell when something's wrong, so I'll just call a landowner or a volunteer and they can tell me what I need to bring to fix the tower. But it's pretty much a partnership with the community, the National Weather Service and all the folks in West Texas because we are a very small group. We couldn't do this without everybody's help."
Investing and expanding
Even with funding from the National Mesonet Program and Texas Tech covering part of the maintenance costs, adding a new station is quite the investment.
"If we factor in everything, it costs about $25,000 to build a new station," Burgett said. "To maintain a station, it's $2,000 to $3,000 per year, on average. It's a major investment. Plus, we have to pay for communication costs. Every station has a cell modem, so you're looking at a cost of about $40 per station, per month for every one of them. It gets quite expensive for the whole year. The university puts in a lot of money to maintain the network, and we get a lot of help from the federal government."
Burgett said the mesonet towers are mostly in areas where Texas Tech has influence, but they hope to expand east and further south.
"We don't go too far east," he said "Abilene, Wichita Falls and then down to Junction and West is where our interest is for the mesonet. But, ideally, we want to fill in the whole Panhandle to the south and then the west. It'll take a lot more stations, but the goal is to fill in the whole Panhandle, fill in a few spots around Lubbock and the rolling plains, and then fill into the south and the Permian Basin, the western Hill Country and then far West Texas."
More than mesonet towers
James said that, while the mesonet towers are instrumental in their weather forecasting, the West Texas Mesonet team's Sonic Detection and Ranging (SODAR) units and the Texas Tech Atmospheric Science group's lightning mapping array also play an important role.
"The SODARs, which are acoustic radars used to evaluate low-level atmospheric stability and wind characteristics, profile the winds," James said. "They look at atmospheric turbulence and estimate the winds above the ground for seven SODAR sites in West Texas, including Hereford, Childress and Lubbock. Then, we use the lightning mapping array, which plots lightning and looks at the shape and the development of these branch lightning channels, in severe weather operations as well.
"In addition to the standard with the network of the mesonet observation stations, there are a couple of other meteorological instrumentation systems they have that we tap into and use on a daily basis for our weather forecasting. The National Weather Service station in Lubbock is fortunate to be near Texas Tech and have a close relationship with the West Texas Mesonet. It's been fun, and it's given us some extra data streams that make our job easier and more exciting to be able to work with them and have this information."