Weather stations that provide critical climate data are threatened by unstable funding
In fields and pastures across Midwestern and Great Plains states, unmanned weather stations quietly record data on temperature, precipitation, humidity, soil conditions, wind and other factors.
It’s fed to farmers and ranchers, emergency weather responders, scientists, crop insurers and agencies like the National Weather Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Yet in many Midwestern states, funding for mesonets — the statewide weather monitoring networks — is less than reliable.
In Nebraska, decreased funding means the state’s mesonet has just one dedicated employee to visit 55 stations four times a year. Regan Kerkman used to split the state in half with a colleague, but these days he’s responsible for trekking across Nebraska’s 77,000 square miles alone.
And last year, Kerkman wasn’t just checking on stations. He was closing them down. After years of decreased support from the state government and public university, the Nebraska Mesonet’s budget was at a breaking point.
Even with hodgepodge support from individuals and local conservation districts, the program was too strapped to keep all its stations open.
Kerkman broke down fences and packed away equipment for storage at the mesonet office.
“Other than a bare spot from where we dig up our soil sensors, it’s pretty hard to tell that anything was ever there,” he said.
The network got a cash infusion from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to prevent more closures, but it was a blow for a network that was established as a national standard in the 1980s.
“We're kind of running on a skeleton shop right now, just scraping by, I would call it,” Nebraska climatologist Martha Durr said.
The Nebraska Mesonet isn’t the only network stringing together support in the region.
“The biggest thing is people think weather data is free,” said John Travlos, the Missouri Mesonet’s co-director. “Stable funding lines are limited and the bulk is sponsorships, contracts and grants.”
Travlos, who works for extension at the University of Missouri, is the only full-time employee running the network after the state’s longtime climatologist and mesonet director recently retired.
An interim director, part-time staff and local partnerships also help to maintain the stations, and Travlos works to secure funds from sponsorships, contracts and grants to cover those positions, as well as his own.
“I am not paid on a line item by the university,” Travlos said. “I’ve been finding my own salary dollars.”
In Kansas, the mesonet gets funding for full-time staff salaries from Kansas State University. But network manager Chip Redmond said the program grapples with grant funding inconsistency when it comes to supporting additional staff to keep up with its network.
Illinois manager Jennie Atkins said patchwork funding has limited her monitoring program to just 19 stations to cover the entire state, almost 58,000 square miles.
“The real issue for us is, without having the state funding, we’re not growing,” she said. “These 19 stations are great, and they’re doing everything they can. But they’re only 19 stations. We’re missing events, especially in rural Illinois where there’s no other public weather data available.”
Atkins said they only got limited data on a derecho that swept through northern Illinois, and completely missed a rainstorm that flooded a small town.
The consequences of fewer stations are also coming to a head in Nebraska.
Dennis Schueth manages the Upper Elkhorn natural resource district in northern Nebraska. His team uses mesonet data to conserve groundwater and help farmers make irrigation decisions.
“We use that as a tool to show that you may have over irrigated, or maybe you under irrigated, or maybe you're just right,” he said. “It’s really important for farmers to understand.”
But now they’re doing it with a lot less information. Schueth’s district lost four of its five nearby stations.
“The farmers are being hindered by not having this data,” he said. “It leaves them in a void of decision making, and that’s lost unless we get those stations replaced.”
The district’s board didn’t want to raise property taxes to cover the station’s costs — and they said farmers could use weather apps instead of mesonet data.
It feels short-sighted to Schueth. Apps might not be as accurate, especially when it comes to water management.
“It's just kind of disappointing,” he said. “Numerous state agencies, elected officials say that water is such an important deal, but then it ended up that we don't want to fund it.”
Mike McDonald agrees. He farms corn, beans and cereal grains and grazes cattle in southeast Nebraska. He said he uses mesonet data to monitor moisture levels to help him make crop decisions and how to structure his grazing cycle.
“You can get that information from other sources,” McDonald said. “But when I get it from the mesonet I know I have reliable, accurate data from an independent party. Not from a company that’s trying to make money off me.”
McDonald — who’s also involved with No-till on the Plains, a non-profit concerned with preserving soil health — is thinking of more than just planting decisions. He’s worried about how a lack of information could slow research and action on climate change.
“Would we be able to be proactive against climate change without the mesonet? And have ways to inform policy on water conservation and flooding prevention? No,” McDonald said.
Atkins has seen how private weather stations can come up short in collecting accurate data. When she visited a site in central Illinois in early February, the station was reporting it was 103 degrees.
“There’s always the quality control issue with private stations,” she said. “People can look at our information and know they’re getting a good data point. But that costs money.”
One state has invested in a robust program — the Oklahoma Mesonet reliably gets about half its budget from the state government.
Director Chris Fiebrich says the support means he doesn’t have to agonize over things like making payroll.
“We can have our staff looking at new technologies, we can have them developing new models, developing new products.”
The bandwidth goes toward training emergency managers, alerting firefighters on changing wind during wildfires or predicting where wheat is in its growing cycle.
“We want to be the foundation for lots of decision-making across the state,” Fiebrich said. “Whether it’s closing an intersection due to flooding, or postponing a high school football game or giving the National Weather Service information on whether they should issue a warning.”
Fiebrich said Oklahoma’s government seems to recognize the importance of accurate weather information for public safety, especially in tornado alley. He said the program doesn’t take the funding lightly and is committed to working with data users, who become passionate supporters of the service.
In Nebraska, Durr said she’s still trying to educate users about the connection between stable funding and the ability to support new technology and products.
“Often I'll get emails from people saying ‘Hey, Oklahoma has this, why don't you all have this?’ and well, that would be great. That'd be awesome,” Durr said.
She said she hopes station closures help people realize how important the resource is.
“I did get questions as to ‘Wait a minute, we had stations there. Why did that go away?’” Durr said. “And I'm thinking, well, this is a consequence, if we're not well funded, we can't keep stations open.”
To Durr, being well-funded means having a stable foundation of support.
“We can’t keep relying on little pots of money, because that puts each station at risk,” she said. “If we’re not broadly funded as a program to monitor weather all across Nebraska, then stations will continue to come and go over time.”
Rude awakening sparks action
Michael Boehm, the University of Nebraska's vice chancellor for the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resource, said after years of tight funding, station closures got people’s attention.
“It came to a head where a number of folks realized we need to be serious about this,” he said. “And now we’re rolling up our sleeves and talking about what support can look like.”
A new bill in front of Nebraska lawmakers proposes earmarking about a million state dollars to the mesonet over the next two years.
The Nebraska Farm Bureau is one organization that pushed for the bill, when the group’s members flagged the issue.
“We’re really still in a significant drought, and the mesonet is one of the ways that we get information,” said Mark McHargue, the state farm bureau president. “It’s important for making decisions and it’s important even for federal assistance. Agriculture depends on really good climate data.”
Follow Elizabeth on Twitter: @Ekrembert
This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @HarvestPM.