Hang on tight for a white-knuckle ride on the U.S. weather roller coaster. Across the nation, extreme weather continues to cause extreme dips, sinking stomachs, and hairpin curves for businesses, including agriculture.

“2012 is clearly a year of wildfires, drought, and heat,” says Tim Schneider of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Office of Hydrologic Development in Boulder, Colo.

Last year, extreme weather events caused about $52 billion in losses in the U.S., NOAA reports. Fourteen weather events caused at least $1 billion in damages each.

Extremes included severe drought in the Southwest, the Mississippi-Missouri River floods, a rash of tornadoes in the Southeast, and ongoing drought-based water restrictions in the West.

Conversations about extreme weather extend beyond the water cooler. In agriculture, producers discuss the latest drought and flood news inside farm sheds, coffee shops, and commodity meetings. Weather events bring financial uncertainty to agriculture.

The scientific community wants to expand its knowledge on why extreme weather has become more of a pattern. Researchers seek to fine-tune methods to help business, including agriculture, better utilize current resources to weather out these financially-destructive storms.

Weather specialists from across the West met in San Diego, Calif., in late July to do just that. Participants at the Extreme Weather Workshop included Western-state science and water specialists from the University of California, California Department of Water Resources, NOAA, USDA, Western States Water Council, state climatologists, and other interested groups.

The group discussed ways to improve observation and monitoring, plus improve weather climate forecasts and predictions.

NOAA currently provides daily weather forecasts, severe storm warnings, and climate monitoring. These services, the NOAA website says, impact about one-third of the nation’s gross domestic product.

“We are asked to do everything under the sun — not just early warnings but to help protect areas of value,” said Roger Pulwarty with NOAA’s Office of Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo.

Agency data assist a wide range of industries including commerce, hydropower, agriculture, coastal areas, recreation, ecosystems, and others.

About a dozen NASA satellites currently orbit the Earth to provide important information on water cycles. The satellites provide continuous observations of the planet’s atmosphere, oceans, and land surface.

Forrest Melton, a senior research scientist at California State University, Monterey Bay, combines NASA Earth observation satellites, remote sensing technology, and data from agricultural weather station networks in his research.

Melton splits his weather and agriculture research between his home base at the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field and California State University, Monterey Bay in Seaside.

Precise water picture

Melton works to provide farmers with a more precise picture of the actual water demand and water use on agricultural operations. This is critical in many Western states, he says, where agriculture can use up to 80 percent of available water resources for important food and fiber production.

Melton’s focus with satellite data is to provide improved measurements of crop plant evapotranspiration rates and crop water requirements to California growers in near real time. This can help producers more precisely schedule irrigations and adjust scheduled irrigation events based on current weather conditions and crop stage growth which both strongly influence actual plant water requirements.

The estimates incorporate NASA satellite data plus surface measurements of agricultural weather conditions from the California Irrigation Management Information System (CIMIS), operated by DWR.

“By making real-time information available, there is potential to support growers who are working to optimize agricultural water use which is especially critical in drought years,” Melton said. “It’s particularly important to maximize the ‘crop per drop’ and get the most out of available water resources.”

Oklahoma was heavily impacted by last summer’s extreme drought. One of the valuable weather tools available to Oklahomans is the Oklahoma Mesonet started in 1994.

Today, the Mesonet is a system of 120, solar-powered remote weather locations with 3,300 sensors which provide about 700,000 weather observations daily. This information produces about 63,000 products and files for rural and urban use every day.

“The weather information includes local weather forecasts, air temperature, rainfall, and wind data but also timely, unique information to serve farmers and ranchers,” said Kevin Kloesel, Oklahoma Climate Survey director.

Mesonet recently upgraded its agricultural weather services. Unveiled in August, the Farm Monitor section on the Mesonet website provides the impact of current weather on cattle comfort, evapotranspiration, 10-inch soil moisture, drought data, and the diseases peanut leaf spot and pecan scab.

“Farmers and ranchers can customize their local Mesonet weather information to have their own personalized local weather updated every five minutes every day,” Kloesel said.

Mesonet smart phone apps are available to receive the weather data. The information can be downloaded to the Apple iPad.

Mesonet is a state-funded program which cost each Oklahoman 40 cents annually.

cblake@farmpress.com