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UAlbany, Capital Region BOCES Bring New Weather Tool To Schools

Michael Apollo
CoE and Mesonet scientist Nick Bassill demonstrates the "extreme weather risk assessment dashboard" at a press conference Tuesday.

The University at Albany is teaming up with Capital Region BOCES to bring a new weather forecasting tool to school districts.

The Center of Excellence in Weather & Climate Analytics’ “extreme weather risk assessment dashboard” includes hour-by-hour forecasts for snow, rain, sleet, wind gusts, and more.

Capital Region BOCES Senior Executive Officer Joseph Dragone, a former superintendent in Ballston Spa, says the tool will provide school officials with more accurate and consistent data when determining snowfall, school closures, and delays this winter.

Credit Michael Apollo / WAMC
Democratic New York state Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy, a frequent supporter of the CoE, says miscalled snow days can leave students idle and require parents to miss work. The new tool, she says, can help prevent that.

“You’re on the phone, it’s 4 o’clock in the morning, 3:30 in the morning – ‘I’m hearing 4-6 [inches of snow],’ ‘I’m hearing 6-8 [inches],’ ‘I’m hearing it’s stopping by 10 [a.m.],’ ‘I thought it was gonna stop by 9 [a.m.]’ – you can’t base these judgements on lots of different inputs that are contradicting each other," he explains. "So to be able to inform the superintendents with this is very exciting.”

Dragone adds the dashboard can also help schools navigate decisions regarding after-school activities, outdoor classes, and early dismissals.

So how does it work? The tool compiles data from both the National Weather Service and the New York state Mesonet, which UAlbany scientists helped develop in 2014. The Mesonet consists of 126 weather stations across the state, which update the UAlbany headquarters every five minutes. Standing in front of the dashboard’s many charts, CoE and Mesonet scientist Nick Bassill demonstrates how each table lays out the likelihood of a given weather event – say, rain – over the next 15 hours. 

“And then you see a different amount: ‘Any’ – meaning more than zero [inches] – ‘more than a tenth of an inch,’ ‘more than half an inch,’ ‘more than an inch'" explains Bassill. "If that condition is likely to happen, you’ll see a filled-in color with a likelihood of low, medium, high – meaning ‘There’s a chance,’ to ‘Yeah, it definitely could happen,’ to ‘OK, it’s very likely to happen in your area.’” 

In other words, a forecast colored red for “more than an inch of rain” between 10-11 a.m. would be interpreted as “highly probable.” Meanwhile, a blue or blank forecast in the same square would mean the odds of receiving over an inch of rain are low or unlikely. If that still sounds confusing, rest assured – the CoE offers training to superintendents before the tool’s implementation.

A total of six BOCES regions across New York – over 150 school districts – are piloting the dashboard so far. Bassill says officials can see forecasts laid out over maps, and even tap into cameras at Mesonet weather stations around their district. And each dashboard is customized for each district’s individual needs.

“New York is impacted by some of the largest variety of weather. So for our western BOCES, they get lake effect snow. For our southern BOCES, they might have to worry about hurricanes making landfall," says Bassill. "And then other BOCES might have people up in higher elevations, in the Catskills, but also schools in lower elevations, like the Hudson [Valley] – and that can really change the weather. Maybe higher elevations are getting heavy snow, lower elevations are getting just a wet rain.” 

CoE Director Christopher Thorncroft says he expects several more BOCES regions to join in the next few months. Thorncroft says the CoE is working with a number of weather-sensitive industries in the Capital Region, and isn’t limited to school districts.

"Utility companies have to make decisions of an upcoming extreme weather event, a snow event or an icing event — they have to decide how many crews they need to keep on, whether they need to bring crews from out of state to deal with weather...Agriculture is another sector we're moving into, they're very senstive to weather," notes Thorncroft. "And also renewable energy...weather information is gonna be an important part of enabling the utility of renewables in New York state." 

In addition to the Capital Region, the following BOCES regions are piloting the new tool: Oswego County, Sullivan County, Cayuga-Onondaga County, Monroe 1 and Monroe 2. 

Jesse King is the host of WAMC's national program on women's issues, "51%," and the station's bureau chief in the Hudson Valley. She has also produced episodes of the WAMC podcast "A New York Minute In History."