As wind whipped over the Howard County farm fields on a cloudy October afternoon, a “new era” in Maryland weather forecasting began.
Volunteers raised a new 10-meter weather tower in Clarksville on Monday as its wind vane spun in the gusts.
The slim, metal tower, decorated with a Maryland flag, is the first in a new network of weather stations known as the Maryland Mesonet, which officials say will sharpen weather forecasts and emergency alerts and provide key climate data for researchers, meteorologists and the public.
By late fall 2024, officials expect that more than 70 of the new weather stations will be operational around the state, complete with rain and snow gauges, barometers, thermometers, soil monitors and wind vanes. The project is a joint effort of Maryland’s Department of Emergency Management, the University of Maryland, College Park and the Maryland Environmental Service.
“As we stand here today, we’re not just celebrating a new tower. We’re celebrating a new era of weather prediction, emergency management and community resilience,” said Maryland Secretary of Emergency Management Russell Strickland during a news conference held Monday at the site of the first tower, located at the Central Maryland Research and Education Center in Clarksville, a University of Maryland facility.
The idea is to spread the new stations around the state, with at least three per county. So far, seven other tower sites have been finalized with land-use agreements, and agreements are being negotiated for 12 other sites.
Sites include elementary schools, a state park, laboratories and a recreation complex, according to the project’s website. In the Baltimore area, possible host sites include the Montebello Water Filtration Plant and Towson University, though the agreements still are being finalized.
The initial sites were chosen for their higher-than-average likelihood of big rain events, and a list of other criteria. The ideal site is a flat, natural surface, without any structures, vegetation or asphalt close by, and not located in an area likely to be covered by standing water or a snowdrift.
The network is called the Mesonet, which is short for “mesoscale network,” because it captures weather events that range in size from 1 to 150 miles in horizontal scale, which is considered the mesoscale. There are 28 other mesonets in the United States, and they are particularly common in the Midwest due to the higher frequency of tornadoes.
Each weather station will transmit data wirelessly to University of Maryland researchers in real time for quality control, and it will be passed along to the National Weather Service nearly simultaneously. The data also will appear on the Maryland Mesonet website, where it can be viewed by local emergency management officials and the public. Much of the data will be reported at one-minute intervals.
For Chris Strong, warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service, the new towers mean there are “less and less places that storms can slide through the cracks and go through undetected, with no observational system to measure them, no people to see the trees get knocked down.”
By car, the new tower is about 9 miles from Ellicott City’s Main Street, the site of devastating flash flooding incidents in 2016 and 2018 that together claimed three lives.
In both instances, rapid rainfall inundated the Hudson and Tiber rivers, sending floodwaters rushing down Main Street, carrying cars, trash cans and debris, and dealing a powerful blow to businesses along the historic corridor.
“We, of course, have experienced a lot of tragedy down in Ellicott City,” said Maryland Sen. Guy Guzzone, a Democrat who represents the area. “It’s somewhat fitting that the first facility is located here.”
The hope is that real-time data from the towers will provide details that allow local officials to issue more rapid, and perhaps more targeted, weather alerts. For instance, if an area is receiving heavy rainfall, and the station’s soil sensors indicate that the soil is quickly becoming saturated, local officials could issue a weather alert more quickly than they otherwise would have, giving local residents more time to prepare.
To Strong, the towers also represent “the perfect middle ground,” in that they provide uniform, trustworthy data, but are relatively cost-effective, allowing a large number to be dispersed around the state. For instance, he said, there can only be so many expensive, top-of-the-line stations like the one at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport. But the new network of towers certainly comes close.
Maryland devoted $4 million to the project as part of the state’s fiscal year 2023 budget, and the project also received funding through a University of Maryland grant program, officials said Monday.
University of Maryland researchers have been among those preparing the new equipment. For first-year graduate student Samantha Koehler, that included leaning face-first into a meter-deep hole in the dirt earlier this month to install the soil sensors that will feed such data to the weather tower as soil temperature, moisture and salinity. It was a bit like plugging in cellphone chargers, she said — except into a wall of dirt rather than an outlet.
Several stakes denote where the sensors are placed, just a few feet from the weather tower. Also next to the tower sits a waist-high, funnel-shaped object that will collect rainwater. Under the funnel, rain will trickle down onto a small object that Koehler likened to a seesaw, which is capable of detecting not only the quantity of stormwater, but also the pace at which it is falling.
Jutting out from the side of the tower itself is a gauge that measures snowfall. Like a dolphin using echolocation to find its prey, the device emits sound waves toward the ground, and measures the depth of snow based on how long it takes for the sound waves to bounce all the way back up.
“You can stand under it, and it sounds like a little cricket chirping,” said Koehler, who studies in the University of Maryland’s Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science.
There’s also a device called a pyrometer attached to the tower, which measures solar radiation, in addition to an air temperature gauge, which is protected by a shield so that it won’t be impacted by the heat of direct sunlight. And at the top of the tower is an anemometer, which functions like a wind vane, and is capable of detecting wind speed and direction. The whole setup is powered by energy from the sun, gathered by a nearby solar panel, Koehler said.
If all goes according to plan, someone from the University of Maryland team will visit each weather station about twice per year, Koehler said — and in the case of any damaged equipment or malfunctions.
“The big takeaway is: Everything’s going to be the same throughout the state. So we know how much data we’re getting, when we’re getting it, we know at what height it’s going,” Koehler said. “Everything is going to be quality-controlled, and also it’s going to be well-maintained.”