Yes, everyone talks about the weather, but maybe you can do something about it if you make use of a treasure trove of weather data collected by Alberta Agriculture.
“Before 2002, we had just a few weather stations scattered across the province,” says Ralph Wright, head of the province’s Soil Moisture Unit.
“Now we have 277 provincially and federally run weather stations in our network. It’s the most comprehensive weather data access system anywhere.”
The amount and quality of the weather and climate data on Alberta Agriculture’s AgroClimatic Information Service (ACIS) website is getting better and Wright would like to see that trend continue.
The ideal, says Wright, is to have stations about 30 kilometres apart. That’s the station density that provides accurate records and truly represents the weather across the whole landscape for climatologists and meteorologists to map weather systems without guessing or not accounting for small storms. Alberta now has stations 40 to 50 kilometres apart on the plains, while the southern parts of the eastern slopes have an even tighter network, with 50 weather stations, most managed by Alberta Environment for flood prediction.
“That’s much better than Manitoba or Saskatchewan, or almost any other place,” says Wright.
Not only is the network of stations as good as any in the world, it’s one of the most rapidly expanding programs anywhere. The provincially managed stations can be expanded to provide more data by adding higher towers for wind speed, air-quality monitors, leaf wetness measuring devices, or other instruments. There’s quite an investment in each station – a scientific rain/snow gauge costs $6,000 or more.
Information from the network of weather stations is constantly fed into various calculations of local conditions – growing degree days for 2 and 5 C, average temperatures and total precipitation for any places and periods you choose, as well as local information such as the historic risk of various levels of frost for a specific location. The data is also fed into maps of soil moisture and other information.
The system has over 7,500 maps users can freely access. Some measurements, such as soil moisture, vary greatly from point to point across the landscape, so automated measurements aren’t very useful. They’re calculated from weather data and verified with physical probing, so you can get a good idea from maps, but then you have to probe your own fields. You can use historic averages and current measures to calculate the risk of seeding a crop, or use growing degree days to estimate progress of a crop or judge how much to pre-sell.
For specialized needs, such as disease-risk warnings, groups can subscribe to a special service that delivers raw data in a constant stream. The most obvious use is knowing immediately when conditions are right for disease outbreaks. That can trigger an instant message to growers of susceptible crops in the area affected so they can scout or spray.
Wright is particularly proud of qualitycontrolinACI S. Asyoulook at any data from ACIS, you can see actual hour-by-hour measurements from a specific station and its history over many years, along with any points that are missing and were estimated.
Works with others
The ACIS website (
www.agric.gov.ab.ca/acis or just Google Alberta Agric ACIS) has Environment Canada weather forecasts, maps, and information from each of the stations in the network. You can graph several stations on a single page to get a better idea of the situation at your farm.
The Canadian Wheat Board is working with WeatherBug, a U.S.-based weather forecasting company, to provide better weather forecasts for prairie farmers. They’re also offering a relatively low-cost weather station linked to their system to add more data points to their calculations. With less guesswork, they should be able to make better weather predictions for the Prairies.
“Systems like WeatherBug and ACIS work hand-in-hand beautifully,” says Wright. “Each one gives you something different. Ours is very accurate weather information for specific points, but we don’t forecast weather – we’re more of a risk-management system.”
Properly siting and managing a weather station is important to collect accurate information, he says. The gauges need to be at least four times as far from obstacles, such as trees or buildings, as the height of the obstacle. Even a chain-link fence can affect wind speed or precipitation measurements. Putting all the instruments on a single pole can also affect measurements, reducing turbulence, or shielding rain gauges. Mostly, you’re checking winds for decisions like whether to spray and that’s not very important.
Wright advises maintaining weather gauges carefully, especially those on poles, as they can attract birds, which perch above them with predictable results.
“Sensitive instruments generally need babysitting,” he says. “But, if they’re hooked to the Internet, it’s important to log any tinkering you do. Otherwise the system may measure that as weather. It’s probably best just to clear debris out of the rain gauge and put a level on the gauge now and again to be sure it’s level.”