Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants New York to create the nation’s best weather monitoring system, one more robust than even the National Weather Service and more capable of predicting events like the snowstorm that buried parts of the Buffalo area under 7 feet of snow.
But although Cuomo’s $18.7 million initiative will help the state respond to events like floods or wildfires, it’s unlikely to live up to his grander expectations, meteorologists say.
To accurately predict lake-effect snowfall in western New York, the state would need weather satellites and a supercomputer to handle complicated weather modeling, plus monitoring stations in the Midwest and Canada, said Christopher Vaccaro of the National Weather Service.
“It will definitely help with short-term weather,” Vaccaro said of Cuomo’s idea. “But when you’re forecasting three days in advance for lake-effect snow, it’s not really going to be helpful.”
Cuomo picked a fight with the weather service following the storm in Buffalo, saying the federal agency failed to predict its intensity and timing. His comments prompted meteorologists Al Roker and Jim Cantore to defend the accuracy and precision of the weather service’s forecasts.
The day before the storm hit, the agency correctly predicted a “historic” storm that would bring feet of snow and localized snowfall rates of 3 to 5 inches per hour.
“Seems like (Cuomo’s) folks didn’t look” at the forecasts, Roker tweeted.
Don Paul, chief meteorologist at WIVB-TV in Buffalo, wrote that “Cuomo’s attempt to scapegoat the National Weather Service for an inaccurate forecast in advance is not only completely in error — the NWS did an outstanding job — but is a disservice to the public and to the hardworking staff of this federal agency.”
Cuomo later said he never meant to offend forecasters, adding that weather service meteorologists “perform the best they can with the information they have.” He said he was just trying to highlight the value of the state’s new weather service — which he said in January would be “the most advanced weather detection system in the nation.”
The network will include 125 sensor stations deployed around the state that will automatically relay current conditions on wind speed, precipitation, temperature and pressure. Cuomo says the monitoring devices will outnumber those now used by the weather service, giving the state a better look at conditions.
The data would also be sent to the National Weather Service, where it could be analyzed and used by the same meteorologists Cuomo criticized.
“So, when the wind starts to pick up, when the rain starts to fall, you can detect it very early in the pattern’s development and then you can track its trajectory of that weather pattern, which would obviously give you more data, would give you more information, which would be more reliable,” Cuomo said.
Other states have similar networks, called mesonets. The systems are good at gauging current conditions and other “real-time, instantaneous” information, according to Kevin Kloesel, a University of Oklahoma meteorologist who directs the Oklahoma Climate Survey. Oklahoma’s mesonet was one of the first such systems, and its network of 120 stations is considered one of the best.
Rainfall totals can help emergency management officials assess flood risk. Pressure changes can indicate imminent thunderstorms. Wind shifts can help firefighters battling a wildfire. Snow gauges can help school officials decide whether to cancel school.
But the systems don’t predict the weather days in advance.
“It gives us the ability to get a handle on what is going on in the atmosphere at a point in time,” Kloesel said. “Would it help you with a snowfall forecast for a week from now? No. It’s not going to help you. It’s a detection system; it is not a prediction system.”
A Cuomo spokesman disputed the claims from meteorologists, saying the system “will absolutely provide for a far more advanced forecasting system.”
“With nearly five times as many weather sensors on the ground than we currently have in New York, and increased frequency of reports, more information on local conditions will be collected and fed into the National Weather Service system, assisting this, and other states preparing for an extreme weather event.”
It’s not the first time Cuomo has tangled with federal researchers or second-guessed scientific experts. This fall he criticized the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s protocol on monitoring health workers returning from Ebola-stricken nations when he implemented a quarantine policy.
His administration has also questioned the Environmental Protection Agency’s determination that the new Tappan Zee Bridge project didn’t qualify for half a billion dollars of clean water funds.
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