Trying for a leg up on Mother Nature

07/22/2010 12:00 AM |

Paumanok Vineyards owner Charles Massoud explains the workings of his weather station, which automatically sends data over the Internet to the Weather Underground website. There are five such private weather stations on the North Fork.

It may be only mid-summer, but 2010 on the North Fork is shaping up to be a year for the record books. Blinding blizzards in the middle of winter, devastating floods in early spring and a weeklong heat wave in early July have left many residents shaking their fists at Mother Nature.

All the North Fork details can be found at Weather Underground, “,” a website that links a vast network of private weather stations across the United States and the world.

“Basically, they pick up information from all these stations and average them up to develop accurate forecasts,” said Paumanok Vineyards owner Charles Massoud, who has operated a private weather station linked to Weather Underground for two years. “They are using these weather stations to come up with a more accurate forecast model,” he said.

A total of five private weather stations are currently providing data through Weather Underground on the North Fork. Mr. Massoud’s station, which is set up in Aquebogue at Paumanok Vineyards, measures everything from rain intensity to barometric pressure. The station, he said, helps him to manage the vineyard by constantly sending him online weather updates — crucial information when it comes to farming.

“Temperature, humidity, rain intensity, moisture levels — all of these things are very useful in agriculture,” he said. “It’s a very handy device for allowing us to take in all the weather parameters and see how they affect our growing conditions … and it’s so function-rich, I don’t even think I’ve quite explored all the functions it’s capable of.”

Although the name implies an “underground” system, it is a play on the radical organization from the 1960s, originally the Weathermen and later the Weather Underground. As the name for a website, it refers to a kind of weather counterculture: Instead of the government or corporations providing all the weather information, the Weather Underground derives much of its data from a vast grassroots network of volunteers who set up weather stations like Mr. Massoud’s and upload their data continuously to the site. Anyone can log on and check it out.

Both the radical organization and the Internet weather site have roots at the University of Michigan, where the first Internet weather data system was set up in the early 1990s. It went commercial as Weather Underground in 1995. Since then, according to its website, Weather Underground has developed the world’s largest network of personal weather stations, with almost 10,000 in the U.S. and over 3,000 more around the world. Publicly available government weather data is also collected at the site.

Most of Mr. Massoud’s station is actually above ground, supported by a tripod behind the vineyard’s main building. A big, black bucket sits at the top to collect water and a skinny wind vane sticks out the back to measure wind speed. Underneath, a slice of plastic with strips of metal running across the body measures leaf wetness, and a thin green wire connected to an instrument beneath the soil measures its moisture content.

Although Mr. Massoud’s station measures only local weather, he said, when viewed along with results from every other private station on the North Fork, the network rivals some of the best weather systems in the country.

“Because we’re an island, we’re surrounded by two large bodies of water — Long Island Sound, the Atlantic Ocean and even Peconic Bay on the East End,” said Peconic Bay Medical Center CEO Andrew Mitchell, who bought himself a private weather station connected to Weather Underground five years ago. “All together, it creates a kind of microclimate. The interest for me is that Mother Nature can just be so powerful. It’s just really interesting to measure the weather and see what the effect is.”

Mr. Mitchell, who is a lifelong boater, often uses his weather station track of wind speed and wind direction before setting sail. If conditions are bad, he’ll know what to expect.

“The major appeal for me was knowing what the conditions would be for sailing,” he said. “I’ve had more inexpensive stations in the past and, frankly, they just couldn’t hold up during winds and storms. This one is by far the most accurate.”