Taming the Weather: UAlbany CoE researcher Nick Bassill helps decision-makers use meteorological data to keep New Yorkers safe

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Of all the places for a weather geek to call home, New York State may be the best location in the United States.

Pick a meteorological phenomenon to study and chances are New York will give you ample opportunity for field research.

“I firmly believe that New York is the most weather-diverse state in the country,” said Nick Bassill, director of research and development at the University of Albany’s Center of Excellence in Weather and Climate Analytics. “We have these massive lake effect snowstorms and we have hurricanes. In no other state could that even be possible. We also get everything in between. We’re not in the Central Plains. We don’t get massive tornadoes like they do. But we still do get tornadoes; we still do get strong winds and hail. We get heat and cold weather and freezing rain and sleet and everything in between”

And for a researcher like Bassill, it’s also the perfect place to unlock the potential of weather data. It’s a crucial area of study, because better data can inform decisions of government agencies and utility companies that potentially have lifesaving consequences.

That’s exactly what he’s doing at UAlbany’s CoE.

Bassill’s story — and his impact on New York State’s ability to respond to extreme weather events — has its roots in a good old-fashioned Midwestern winter.

From snowstorms to hurricanes

Growing up in Wisconsin, Bassill was a typical child of the region, enjoying winter and building snow forts. Eagerly wanting to know when the next snowfall would occur, he began watching The Weather Channel and became captivated by meteorological patterns that affected his backyard, as well as the ones that made headlines across the country.

In particular, the weather events he’d never experienced caught his attention, specifically in 1992, when Hurricane Andrew made landfall twice in the U.S. – first in Florida, then Louisiana. That impression, coupled with his love of data and maps, led him to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where his early research projects focused on hurricanes en route to earning a Ph.D. in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences.

And in a roundabout way, it was the aftermath of two hurricanes that brought Bassill and his expertise to New York State.

He arrived in Albany in 2014 to help design, install and operate Mesonet – the centerpiece of the New York State Early Warning Weather Detection System – then moved into the role of senior scientist at the Center of Excellence at the University at Albany, funded by Empire State Development’s Division of Science, Technology and Innovation, also known as NYSTAR.

The creation of Mesonet was the result of two major storms that devastated New York. In 2011, Hurricane Irene caused nine fatalities and more than $1 billion in flooding damage across the Catskill and Adirondack Mountains. One year later, Superstorm Sandy caused more than $5 billion in damage from storm surge flooding downstate.

Figuring out exactly what happened – how much rain fell and how high the wind gusts peaked in specific locations — was important to public officials in the wake of these severe events. But New York State didn’t have enough weather stations to provide those details.

With funding from the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013, also known as the Sandy Supplemental Relief Bill, New York was able to deploy a high-quality weather network across the state. Bassill was charged with helping to implement the system and find practical ways to utilize the information it provided.

“I came here about a year before the first site was installed,” Bassill said. “Then, as they were being installed, I would start making weather products with the data that was coming in, whether it was maps or line graphs of temperature, whatever you can think of really. I just started to figure out what can we do with that data. Now, I’m more in a role of trying to translate that data to products for groups that can use it directly.”

Collecting, interpreting and applying the data

Here’s the thing: New York State now produces an incredible amount of real-time weather data, updated every five minutes from each of its 126 stations across the state. There is at least one station in every county and borough with an average of 17 miles between sites.

But unless you are a meteorologist, all this information can be difficult to interpret.

And many government agencies don’t have a full-time meteorologist on staff to provide that interpretation.

How can that play out?

Bassill offered two examples.

First, let’s say you knew a winter storm was coming. Standard procedure would be to put salt down on the roadways. But if it’s going to rain before it snows, you wouldn’t want to put salt out, because the rain will wash it away. Drivers won’t get any benefit, and the municipality has now wasted time, money and salt. With the right tools and data, that basic question – is it going to rain before it snows or is it going to snow before it rains? – is easy to interpret from a meteorologist’s perspective, but not necessarily obvious to an amateur weather forecaster.

Now, let’s say you work for a utility company and see there’s going to be snow and strong winds. But is the snow going to be wet and therefore heavy? That matters because a wet snow is going to stick to the power lines and trees. In those conditions, when the wind comes, power outages will be more than likely. But if it’s a dry, powdery snow, there’s less reason to worry about the winds, lowering the likelihood of downed lines.

“These kinds of questions and situations spring up a lot,” Bassill said. “They are the things which are mostly knowable, but hard to look up if you don’t have that expertise.”

Interpretation is where science and entrepreneurial opportunities come together. Bassill and his colleagues could spend their entire workdays on the phone, talking through the data with government and utility representatives. Instead, they’re looking for ways to develop products and tools that can translate the high level of meteorological data into easily digestible — and actionable — information about the weather.

His current projects include working with utility companies to better predict restoration times, providing situational awareness for New York’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, and studying urban heat in New York City – a trending topic as climate change and urbanization are changing millions of people’s living environments.

“Heat is the No. 1 or No. 2 weather-related cause of death in virtually all years, with flooding being the other one,” Bassill said. “The great thing is that heat is among the most predicable things. It’s less about predicting heat than how we respond to it.”

Bassill continues to find inspiration in helping agencies, organizations and companies use data to better respond to weather emergencies.

“The type of project that I’m really interested in is one that is somewhat more universal,” Bassill said.

He envisions an initiative that delivers New York’s Mesonet data in a more cohesive comprehensive way to a wide group of agencies and utility companies. An ability to share information that is broadly relevant to all their organizations creates more opportunities for innovative and effective solutions.

“I’m interested in finding a way to bring everyone to work collaboratively to think a little bit bigger, to not necessarily do things one at a time but tackle slightly bigger problems in a more comprehensive way that would benefit everyone for less money,” Bassill said. “That’s my dream.”


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