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Cuts could end weather monitor serivce

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POSTED: March 2, 2011 11:44 a.m.

I have referred readers to the Georgia Automated Environmental Monitoring Network for timely weather information, like soil temperatures used for planting and sodding dates.
I have also referred students, agricultural producers and agricultural entrepreneurs to the site so they could directly access the information they need for making decisions. I used the data from the AEMN to substantiate a grower’s crop insurance claim that he lost 95 percent of his blueberry crop to a series of freezes.
But this invaluable service could very well disappear by this summer if funding for the network is pulled.
The AEMN is the network of 81 weather stations operated by the University of Georgia. The nearest weather station to the Richmond Hill area is at the Bamboo Farm while the one closest to the Pembroke area is in Statesboro on Bulloch Board of Education property.
The AEMN, an extensive network of automated weather stations, operates in most of the agricultural production areas across the state. The first station was installed in 1992 and since then the network has grown to its current 81 stations. Each station records rainfall, air and soil temperature, relative humidity, wind speed and direction, solar radiation, soil moisture and barometric pressure. Some stations also record evaporation, water temperature, and leaf wetness.
All these values are read every second and averaged and recorded every 15 minutes on site. This data is sent to computers on the UGA campus via radio, Internet or dedicated phone lines. The downloaded data is processed and maintained in two files, one with the 15-minute values and one with daily summaries. All of this information is made available to anyone at no cost at www.Georgiaweather.net, and updated at least every hour. In addition to weather data, various weather-based products, such as degree-day calculators and rainfall calculators, are also available at this website.
The network also does a number of weather calculations. One of these is the Wet Bulb Global Temperature, which is a measure of the stress the weather places on humans and animals. A football coach would use WBGT to decide how hard a workout his team can handle on a given day. A drill sergeant would refer to it in planning training operations. The local health department can use it to decide when and if a heat emergency exists and what sectors of the population need to take precautions. A farmer refers to it to decide if he needs to move his livestock to shelter or provide additional water.
Who uses the AEMN? Local real-time weather information delivered frequently is invaluable to a wide range of constituents, from obvious users like farmers and nurserymen to less apparent ones like science teachers and stonemasons. It is difficult to know the myriad ways in which the service helps Georgia residents, but the evidence available suggests a wide range of users and uses, including:
• In September 2010, a representative month, the AEMN had 565,000 hits by more than 60,400 separate visitors, representing 49 states and 82 countries. Almost 300,000 of the hits were from within Georgia.
• An article in the U.S. Golf Association online newsletter on August 11, 2010, documented severe drought damage to Georgia golf courses, using AEMN data extensively.
• Peanut growers use a calculator at the AEMN site to determine risk of tomato spotted wilt, and fruit producers utilize a chilling degree-day calculator to determine if their peaches, blueberries, etc. have met dormancy requirements for bloom in spring.
• AgroClimate.org, an information and decision support system for farmers from the four-state Southeast Climate Consortium, draws directly and heavily on AEMN data for a wide array of tools to manage risk related to climate. Particularly valuable are seasonal predictions based on the El Niño cycle.
What is the economic value of the AEMN to Georgia? Here are just two examples:
• Blueberry growers estimated that during a hard freeze last winter, AEMN frost protection information in three counties saved them between $40,000 and $60,000.
• A formal study by M.Z. Alhassan in the Agricultural Economics Department at UGA concluded that the value of weather information from a single station in Camilla, for purposes of determining optimal planting date and irrigation regimes for corn, cotton, peanut and soybean, was $847,502 per year.
Although technically “automated,” the AEMN requires 24/7 support, including staff who travel around the state diagnosing data interruptions, repairing or replacing equipment and providing routine maintenance.
One staff position is dedicated to continuously providing quality assurance and quality control of the formidable data stream from 81 stations recording at least 19 weather variables every 15 minutes. Computer and file maintenance, sensor calibration, accommodation of data requests and overall administration require additional staff. The cost for maintaining the AEMN is $300,000 a year. That works out to less than $10.15 per day per weather station.
Unless a white knight soon arrives on his steed, this service is going away. You guessed it: Budget cuts. The funding for the AEMN is one of the latest services scheduled to close due to lack of funding support. Unless $300,000 per year in ongoing support becomes available from one or a few major sources in the very near future, the dismantling of individual AEMN stations will begin on April 15.
Once a station is shut down, data will no longer be available, to the detriment of Georgia’s economy. All stations will be decommissioned by July 1.
For further information please contact AEMN manager Ian Flitcroft at iflitcro@uga.edu.

Gardner is the extension agent for Bryan County. He can be reached at dgardner@uga.edu.

 

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