Ask a forecaster what he needs to figure out tomorrow's weather, and he'll say “lots more facts about today's weather.''
That's because forecasts are based on both facts and educated guesses. Anytime an educated guess can be replaced with a fact, the forecast becomes better.
In the past two years, federal forecasters have found a new place to get facts about weather — on top of windmills. Three big wind farm companies have agreed to give federal forecasters their private weather data.
Here's why that matters.
Lots of things create weather, including how hot or cold the ocean is, whether the ground is wet or dry, the wind and how much water is in the air. None of it is simple. For example, at any given spot, the wind blows in more than one direction, which is why leaves dance and plastic bags twirl.
Because these things are complicated, scientists try to sample the air as much as they can, and then guess the rest. Here are two ways they sample air:
>> Attach thermometers and other sensors to balloons and let them loose.
>> Put thermometers and sensors on airplanes so that those sensors record facts as planes take off and land.
Wind mills have opened up a whole new trove of data. If the federal government can get every weather company to help out, they'll have weather facts from tens of thousands of windmills nationwide.
“Everyone who uses weather information will benefit from these additional data,” said Kathryn Sullivan, a deputy administrator at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The typical turbine is between 200 and 330 feet tall. Each turbine records the wind speed around it. Also, each wind farm has a weather tower that collects wind speed, direction and temperature.
The NOAA is the federal office that oversees weather forecasting. The three companies that NOAA has contracted with are Xcel Energy of Minnesota, Iberdrola Renewables of Oregon and NextEra Energy Resources of Florida.
As part of the agreement NOAA has has to promise to keep the wind companies' weather data private -- after all it's very competitive business.
The companies say that working with the federal government will help them run their wind farms better and improve their bottom line.
Who knows, maybe MidAmerican Energy Co., our region's biggest wind company, will join in.
I emailed a question on that to Tina Potthaff, a spokeswoman for MidAmerican, and she checked around. Here's what she found out:
So far, NOAA hasn't called to see if MidAmerican would want to share the weather information it gathers. But MidAmerican is open to the idea, she said. Doing so would depend on details of any agreement.
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, MidAmerican Energy Co.
(MidAmerican is owned by Berkshire Hathaway Inc., which also owns The World-Herald.)