How can worse forecasts make Kentucky better?

This map of Kentucky Mesonet reporting stations shows the cold system entering Kentucky from the west on Jan. 12.
This map of Kentucky Mesonet reporting stations shows the cold system entering Kentucky from the west on Jan. 12.

Gov. Matt Bevin often talks about the need for Kentucky to envision, and work toward, a better future, to become what he calls “the best version of itself.”

Which is why it is so perplexing that he wants to cut the state’s tiny appropriation to Kentucky Mesonet, which the Kentucky Farm Bureau praised as “one of the most comprehensive weather data systems in the country.”

It is hard to understand how Bevin chose the 70 programs he proposed cutting from the state budget, and we don’t value the Mesonet over textbooks for school children or cancer research. Still, the Mesonet — which serves a broad swath of the economy, places Kentucky in a technological leadership position, reduces losses of crops, livestock, property and lives while providing technical educational opportunities — seems like something Bevin would, and should, endorse, not consign to the chopping block.

Founded over a decade ago with the support of the General Assembly, Gov. Ernie Fletcher, Sen. Mitch McConnell and funding from the National Weather Service, Kentucky Mesonet has grown from one environmental reporting station to 69 spread across 67 counties. Each collects data on temperature, wind speed and direction, humidity, rainfall and sunlight every five minutes, day and night, and relays it instantly to the National Weather Service in Louisville.

For most of its first decade, as the Mesonet network was built out, it relied on federal funds, grants, local partnerships and the support of Western Kentucky University, where it’s based. In the last biennial budget, Mesonet received $750,000 per year, which has allowed the system to upgrade and replace technology, add essential staff and expand outreach.

It has become a better version of itself with state funding, and that has allowed it to funnel better information to the National Weather Service for more accurate forecasts and more precise alerts. That’s quite a bargain for 0.007 percent of the state general fund.

To understand the value of Kentucky Mesonet, it’s important to know that without it there would be many fewer reporting stations and most of them would be located near or in cities. These are far from where many Kentuckians live and work, plus the density of cities creates different weather patterns.

Information collected at airports in Louisville and Lexington may not tell farmers three hours away much about the likelihood of their crops freezing overnight or if daytime temperatures could endanger their livestock.

The Farm Bureau noted that many farmers have the Mesonet page bookmarked on their computers and smart phones “so they can have instant access to real-time weather data.”

While the economic value to farmers is critical, “public health and safety is one of the main reasons this got started,” explained Alice Turkington, associate professor of geography at the University of Kentucky.

The Kentucky system was inspired by the Oklahoma Mesonet, created in the late ‘80s to provide better information about dangerous weather, which both states experience in abundance.

Here again, real-time data from stations across the state gives forecasters a much more accurate view of what’s happening in weather systems than they would otherwise have.

“If you ask me to forecast without a Mesonet, I can,” WDRB’s chief meteorologist told the Louisville Courier-Journal, “but I can tell you it’s not going to be as good.”

Can “not as good” lead us to the best version of ourselves?