Summer 2023

Natural Selections

Silhouette of a weather station at sunrise in a field.
A weather station, silhouetted against the sunrise, in a field at UW–Madison’s Arlington Agricultural Research Station. Photo by Michael P. King


Wisconsin weather has grown increasingly unpredictable and extreme since the 1950s. The rapid shift poses difficult challenges for farmers, researchers, and the public. But with the help of a statewide network of weather stations, known as a mesonet, Wisconsinites will be better equipped to face the uncertainties of a changing climate.

“Mesonets can guide everyday decision-making for the protection of crops, property, and people’s lives while also supporting research, extension, and education,” says Chris Kucharik, professor and chair in the Department of Agronomy. Kucharik is leading a major project to expand Wisconsin’s mesonet with assistance from Mike Peters BS’95, director of UW’s Agricultural Research Stations.

Unlike many other agricultural states, Wisconsin’s current network of environmental monitoring stations is minimal. Almost half of the 14 weather and soil monitoring stations are at UW research stations, with the others concentrated in Kewaunee and the Door Counties on private fruit orchards. Data from these stations is currently hosted by Michigan State University’s mesonet. Going forward, these stations will move to a designated Wisconsin-based mesonet called Wisconet, and the total number of stations will increase to 90 to better monitor all regions of the state.

⊕ Number Crunching: How Big Is the Mesoscale?

What exactly is a mesonet, and how much area does it cover?

This effort is supported by a $2.3 million grant from the Wisconsin Rural Partnership, a U.S. Department of Agriculture–funded UW initiative, as well as $1 million from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. The network’s expansion is a critical step in providing the highest quality data and information for those who need it.

Each station contains equipment to measure atmospheric and soil conditions. Instruments above ground measure wind speed and direction, humidity, air temperature, solar radiation, and liquid precipitation. Below ground, soil temperature and moisture levels are measured at specified depths.

For now, data from Wisconsin’s stations is accessed through Michigan State University’s Enviro-weather website. But this summer, the data will migrate to a Wisconsin-focused site, Kucharik and his team are working to build a simple, open-access site where users can view and download station data in real-time and find practical guidance for using the data to make real-world decisions.

“Our growers rely on weather data to make important decisions on their farms on a daily basis. It affects when crops are planted, irrigated, and harvested,” says Tamas Houlihan, executive director of the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association (WPVGA). “So we’re very excited about utilizing this expanded mesonet in the near future.”

In February, Kucharik, who is also a faculty member in UW’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, presented the mesonet plan at a WPVGA grower education conference. Andy Diercks BS’93, a Wisconsin farmer and frequent collaborator with CALS and the UW–Madison Division of Extension, was in the audience. He liked what he heard.

“Many of our agronomic decisions are based on weather we’ve experienced or weather we expect to arrive within the next few hours or days,” says Diercks. “It’s our goal to keep water, nutrients, and crop protectants where plants can use them. But we can’t succeed if we don’t fully understand the current conditions in the air and soil and what to expect in the near future.”

Diercks cites an unforeseen heavy rain washing away a recent fertilizer application as an event for which the mesonet could help farmers better prepare. And more than just farmers stand to benefit from the network.

“The National Weather Service regards these networks as valuable because they’re able to verify and lead to a better understanding of extreme events,” says Kucharik, who earned his Ph.D. at UW in atmospheric sciences. “A research-grade network of weather stations evenly spread across the state provides the NWS that many more data points.”

While call-in reports from backyard weather stations are valuable, a mesonet can provide a more consistent and complete picture. Data from the stations could also aid researchers, transportation departments, environmental managers, construction managers, and anyone whose work is influenced by weather and soil conditions.

School grounds are potential homes for environmental monitoring stations, as well, which would create opportunities to support K-12 education.

“It’s another way of getting more students connected to something that affects their everyday lives,” says Kucharik. “You can connect that science to all sorts of other fields in agriculture, forestry, and wildlife ecology.”

Installation of Wisconsin’s new mesonet stations will start this summer and is expected be completed in fall 2026.

This article was posted in Changing Climate, Economic and Community Development, Natural Selections, Summer 2023 and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , .