Unfortunately, a bad toss of the dice hit at the worst possible moment – his daughter’s wedding day.

Ladner had combed through 15 years of weather data, analyzed forecasting models, and confidently picked one of two days on which nary a raindrop had ever fallen for the big event. Unfortunately, it also proved to be the day a tropical storm would wreak havoc on a wedding. That tropical storm became the category one hurricane Georges, which dumped over 13 inches of rain on Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.

“We still have a lot of problems with rain forecasts. We can do well forecasting a one to three day period, but after three days weather forecasts likely will never be as good as everybody would like,” says Lee Crowley, a physical scientist with the USDA World Agricultural Outlook Board in Stoneville, Miss.

“We do, however, believe soil moisture data can help us make more accurate rainfall predictions.”

Crowley points to a growing network of weather stations spread across agricultural regions of the United States that could help increase the odds of forecasters getting it right and avoid such catastrophes.

Coordinated by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the Soil Climate Analysis Network, or SCAN, weather stations use remote sensing and meteor burst telemetry to obtain remote site information in near real-time. In simple terms, meteor burst telemetry is a communication technology that bounces radio signals off of space dust as it enters our atmosphere.

Powered by solar panels and batteries, the SCAN stations can measure precipitation, air temperature, relative humidity, wind speed and direction, solar radiation, soil moisture and temperature, soil heat flux, barometric pressure, water quality, and ground water height.

The measurement of soil moisture and temperature is especially critical because research has shown these variables may play a key role in forecasting rainfall.

“The ability of NRCS and its partners to make sound resource assessments and watershed decisions has been severely limited by the lack of quality, historic and real-time soil-climate information. Existing data from other networks are essentially inadequate for most purposes, as they tend to be application specific, short-term, incomplete, and limited in area of coverage,” the federal agency says.

SCAN weather stations may also make it possible to extend NRCS’s water supply forecasting technology into other regions of the United States.

Currently, 69 SCAN stations are located in 33 states across the country. Leading the pack are Mississippi and Alabama, followed by Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona.

Potential benefits of the first nationwide soil climate network aren’t exclusive to government forecasters and researchers. Cotton grower Kenneth Hood of Perthshire, Miss., says he uses data from the SCAN station on his farm in crop simulation models.

“I like to go in the computer and do what-if scenarios for my farm. This provides another information layer that I can graph out, and it correlates well with what I’m already doing,” Hood told researchers and growers at a recent forum on weather’s impact on agriculture in Stoneville, Miss.

“Many of the newer crop varieties don’t handle the stress that our older conventional varieties could, so farmers must become more management intensive,” he says. “With the SCAN weather network we may be able to see drought patterns earlier enabling more timely irrigation applications. With this system, we will also be able to measure the Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL) coming off a particular field.”

In his first year to gather data using a SCAN system, Hood appreciates the ease of downloading information from the SCAN station on his farm straight off the Internet. “We won’t have to have an individual station on every farm in order to benefit every farmer. We just need a good network of systems,” he says.

“Weather is the most influential environmental variable in agriculture,” says Crowley. The main weather variables that affect agriculture are all measured with a SCAN weather station. The information obtained by the Soil Climate Analysis Network is not going to prevent weather related disasters, but it will help agricultural producers make better management decisions.”

For those individuals interested in obtaining a SCAN weather station of their own, Raymond Motha, chief meteorologist with USDA’s World Agricultural Outlook Board in Washington, D.C., says the cost for a site ranges between $12,000 and $15,000. The system has a minimum life expectancy of 10 years, with regular maintenance.

To access data from any of the current SCAN sites, you can visit go the http://www.wcc.nscs.usda.gov . Links to this, and other weather sites, are also available through the Delta Research and Extension Center’s weather information website at http://www.deltaweather.msstate.edu.

Delta Research and Extension Center’s weather stations, more than half of which are SCAN stations, are used to provide crop modeling and heat unit data to Mid-South producers via the Internet.

e-mail: dmuzzi@primediabusiness.com