Montana Climate Project to Install Remote Weather Stations

University of Montana researchers recently received a $21 million government contract

By LAURA SCHEER, Missoulian

MISSOULA — University of Montana researchers recently received a $21 million government contract, bringing more support and longevity to what has been a grassroots effort to build a better climate monitoring network across the state.

The funding from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will pay to expand and enhance a collaborative project spearheaded by UM’s Montana Climate Office in 2016 that aims to fill in gaps in weather and soil moisture data throughout the state.

“This project is very unique,” said Kelsey Jencso, a lead researcher and associate professor of watershed hydrology at UM. “This is a very applied project. It has a particular goal, which is to better monitor soil moisture, snowpack, weather hazards and climate conditions.”

Through partnerships with government agencies, including the Montana Department of Agriculture and Bureau of Land Management, Montana State University, watershed groups, and private farmers and ranchers, the Montana Climate Office, part of the W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation, has installed 80 weather stations in the last four years across Montana.

Called Montana Mesonet, the project allows researchers and state agencies to better characterize drought conditions across Montana for planning around agriculture, water supplies and evolving fire conditions, Jencso said in a phone interview. With the additional money from the contract, they’ll be able to add stations in central and eastern portions of the state, where historically, data has been under measured.

“It’s not that snow doesn’t occur out in central and eastern Montana, it’s just that we don’t have stations to record that and so these data points become really important for daily models by the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and Weather Service flood forecast center,” Jencso told the Missoulian.

The $21 million Army Corps contract will cover new equipment and sensors and pay for maintenance and increased staff, allowing them to replace current weather stations with new ones and expand the network to more than 200 stations in total in the coming years, providing data that’s vital to farmers and ranchers planning their seasons. The stations measure and relay data in near real time, which can be viewed online through the Montana Climate Office.

“Farmers need to know soil moisture and soil temperature conditions for planting and harvesting, they need to document hail and extreme weather events for reporting crop losses. To save money, they need to know how much fertilizer to apply and these amounts change due to differences in soil moisture. In this light, increased efficiency from more accurate weather and soil moisture information can translate into several million dollars in statewide savings each year,” Jencso said in an email.

Eventually, there will be a station every 25 square miles, he added.

Because of the contract, “there’s actually going to be some support in terms of sustaining this network…so it’s something we can count on longer term and really start to develop not just the data, but decision making tools around the data,” Jencso said. “There aren’t necessarily research questions associated with this. It’s all about developing better data, better models to protect life, property and make better decisions for our economy.”

Prior to receiving the contract, the already established network was partly funded in a grassroots effort by private landowners, farmers and ranchers who heard about the project by word of mouth and wanted to support a nearby weather station, Jencso said.

“Literally you’d get a phone call from a rancher out near Sidney, Montana, asking, ’I’ve heard about this from my neighbor or through (Montana State University–Bozeman) Extension or the ag research centers, I’m interested in supporting one of these,” he said.

Kevin Hyde, Montana Mesonet manager, said Stillwater County was the first county to pay for a station, adding they’ve already been using the data for real-world applications.

“They did it because they knew it was going to improve their insurance claims — crop insurance, cattle insurance — and they’ve used the data for that purpose,” he said.

The expanded data set will also be a vital resource for researchers conducting studies into the future, Jencso said.

“This opens the door for many, many other opportunities. It’s the infrastructure upon which science questions can follow.”

The project will create upwards of 10 paid “boots on the ground” positions for UM undergraduate students every year.

“This provides a unique opportunity for students to not only get the basic curriculum and understanding in water resources and hydrology, but to get out into the field and have paid positions where they’re functioning as hydrologic technicians,” Jencso said. “That’s a key experience for future water resources professionals.”

Carly Andlauer, a senior finishing up a bachelor’s degree in ecology restoration this semester, has already been working as a research associate soils analyst for the project since last fall. She works in the lab on campus, processing soil samples from the monitoring stations across the state.

“It’s just a really unique position to be in,” Andlauer said. “We’ve got so much going on and just so many samples to get through.”

Andlauer said the lab work is important because it’s giving her real-world experience as an undergrad.

“It’s pretty much directly what I want to be in. This is hands on … I get to actually develop models and apply it directly.”

She plans to continue working on the project as she works towards a master’s degree, eventually using the data for her thesis.

“I think it’s really incredible to be working somewhere where we’re kind of at the forefront of stuff we’re working on,” she said.

Other researchers on the team include Zachary Hoylman, assistant state climatologist at the Montana Climate Center; Kyle Bocinsky, research associate at the Montana Climate Center; and Bruce Maxwell, professor of weed and invasive plant ecology at MSU.

The contract is part of a larger, $48.2 million project that is a collaboration with climate offices of Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota and Nebraska and will cover about a quarter million square miles with over 500 weather stations — a station every couple of dozen miles in the Upper Missouri River Basin.