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Undercurrents: High-Tech Weather Stations Show More than Temps

A regular Source feature, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events as they develop beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.

Davis weather stationThe information explosion has scattered specialized technology across the territory in the form of compact “weather stations” set up to record and relay air temperatures, wind speeds and direction, wave heights and barometer readings. And just about anyone can own one.

It’s hard to say exactly how many such V.I. stations there are. In addition to those operated by such government agencies as the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Climatic Data Center and the National Weather Service, there are stations maintained by weather service organizations, such as TV channels and Internet weather sites.

And now, virtually any private institution or individual can buy a station. Two University of the Virgin Islands professors, Dr. Avram Primack and Dr. David Morris, have set up several – not to predict the weather but to gather research information.

“We have about seven of them now,” Primack said.

The UVI stations are about the cheapest you can buy. They cost roughly $200 each, compared with more sophisticated stations that can run into the $1,000s. Those are the kind used for “official” weather reporting by government agencies, and they tend to be not only more complex but also better protected against the elements.

Fancy or plain, at its core a weather station is “just a bunch of instruments connected up to an electronic receiver,” as Primack described it.

The modest UVI stations were purchased from a company called Davis. While the federal government’s stations are anchored and stabilized and last for “years and years,” Primack said the UVI stations are made primarily of plastic, and, “I’ll be glad if they last five years.”

According to its website, Davis stations dot the globe; as of Monday, there were 16,309 of them actively reporting from around the world.

In and near the territory, there are 11 Davis stations, according to the company, and anyone can check the readings on them simply by going to the site http://www.weatherlink.com/user/uviwsx6/

At midday Monday, the temperature in Neltjeberg on St. Thomas’ north side was 85.8 degrees Fahrenheit. The humidity was 75 percent; the wind was out of the south/southeast at 8 miles per hour and the barometer read 30.123 inches and was “falling slowly.”

By Antilles school south and east of Charlotte Amalie, the temperature was higher – 89.4 degrees F – but the humidity was lower, 65 percent. The wind direction was the same, but it was moving at only 2 mph. The barometer was “falling slowly” from a reading of 29.982.

Ideally, weather stations are located where there is minimal chance of interference from buildings or trees. Most of the Davis UVI stations are on rooftops at the homes of university faculty or staff.

“Quite often they go wherever we can put them,” Primack said. The majority of UVI’s are on St. Thomas simply because he lives there. But the website provides access to Davis stations at Benner Bay on St. Croix, at Bethany on St. John, and some in the British Virgin Islands as well.

“Our stations are reporting every 30 minutes, WAPA willing,” Primack said, in reference to the Water and Power Authority’s record of frequent electrical outages.

Morris was unavailable to discuss his line of research using the weather stations, but Primack described his studies.

So far, he said, he has almost a year’s worth of data collected from several stations. It’s just the beginning of a research project aimed at studying the interaction between island climates and marine life in the surrounding ocean waters. He’s tracing sediment flow into the sea. He will need to check soils also and is hopeful some of the pertinent data may be available from recent agricultural studies.

Primack wants to learn more about the impact of sediment on corals and other sea life. Eventually he – and his students – may be able to solve a current debate about what causes a disease that leaves sea fans with holes in them: Is it a yeast carried by Sahara dust, or one that comes from pollutants carried in run-off from contaminated soil?

Along the way, he’s collecting information on weather patterns in and around St. Thomas.

“Botany Bay appears to have its own weather system separate from the rest of the island,” he said. While there is considerable correlation among most of the various sites, “I’m surprised that (some of) the stations are uncoupled.” It’s too early to draw any conclusions, but not too early to be curious.

“The first thing you check when the data surprises you is if your instrument is working properly,” he noted.

Primack declined to estimate how long the study will take.

“It’s difficult to come to an end of what you’re doing. There’s always something else to ask,” he said.

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