Around the world, thousands of weather stations - over a hundred in Mexico alone - gather data on rainfall, temperature and wind. They play a key role in forecasts as well as efforts to monitor climate change.
There aren't too many things that disrupt the view of the vast horizon in the Ría Lagártos Biosphere Reserve in Mexico. The area on the Yucatan peninsula is characterized by its low vegetation and flat landscape. There are very few hills along the scenic path to the lagoon on the Gulf Coast.
Yet one impressive landmark interrupts the serene surroundings - a soaring ten-meter-high white metal structure. It's located next to a small low building that belongs to parking administration. A fence ropes off the land, preventing people and animals from entering.
The structure is one of 135 automatic weather stations across Mexico that gather climate information across the country and transmit it to other meteorologists across the world. The metal frame is fitted with all the necessary accessories, including weather-proof antennas, panels and small boxes that contain measuring devices. The one feature this station does not include is human beings - it operates completely on its own, requiring little to no maintenance.
"Since they were installed, our stations have operated smoothly without any big problems," said Efigenio Cruz Ayala, the head technician at Servicio Meteorológico Nacional (SMN), Mexico’s national weather service.
The institute began setting up the meteorological stations in the late 1990s. "Usually, it takes five days to install them," said Cruz Ayala. "First the foundation is installed, then the support tower is built where the instruments are located. At the end, we test to make sure the information is being recorded correctly."
That, says Cruz Ayala, is the only care the stations receive before they are left to function on their own. Occasionally, a technician is needed because the wind can blow sand particles and leaves into the measuring devices, causing the instruments to malfunction. And at times, birds settle into the antenna network, building nests that pollute the instruments.
Mountains of data
Across the world, there are 11,000 similar automated meteorological stations. They measure weather patterns in their surroundings every ten minutes. The data is then transmitted via satellite to a group of meteorological organizations in various countries that receive and process the information.
The German weather service, DWD, in the city of Offenbach is among the big meteorological stations that receives data from Mexico. That includes things such as altitude, terrain, location and UTC time. That information makes the measurements independent of the time where they were read and gathered. And it takes time, too, for the measurements to reach the meteorological centers for processing.
"The data that takes the longest to reach us is from the Weddel Sea in Antarctica," said Uwe Kirsche from the DWD, adding that it takes four hours for the information to arrive at his organization. Data from Mexico takes between 1 to 3 hours to transfer.
Predicting the future
The huge amounts of data generated by the 11,000 weather stations around the world help the DWD to monitor the global climate and patterns and also to compile weather forecasts .
"Wind that pushes through the west coast of Africa can hit the east coast of the US just a few days later and even develop into a hurricane," said Kirsche. That is where the weather stations’ work becomes crucial, as meteorological services are able to generate severe weather warnings and notify people in danger quickly.
Simple weather stations like this one on a roof feed raw data into international efforts to track climate change
But the data also plays an important role in the long-term. It’s fed into computer models developed by the big meteorological stations. That helps researchers compare past data with current figures, allowing them to forecast with some accuracy how climate patterns will develop in the future.
The central network of a weather station in a country is usually complemented by secondary and tertiary centers that also gather and transmit data, helping researchers form a more complete picture.
In Mexico, the SMN oversees a network of 44 regional stations that contribute to local weather forecasts. Beyond that, the various states in Mexico operate their own, local networks. They're usually installed in ecologically critical locations such as natural reserve areas.
Monitoring climate change
The German Agency for International Cooperation (GiZ) has worked together with Mexico’s natural preservation organization, CONANP, to install five such automatic meteorological stations in the Sierra Madre Oriental mountains.
Weather cards on the walls of an observatory describe wind patterns among Mexico’s highest atmospheric levels
"We install the weather stations mainly to study how changes in the climate affect the biodiversity in the Sierra Madre Oriental," said Edgar Carnacho Castillo, a GiZ consultant working on the project "Cambio Climatico y Gestion de Areas Naturales Protegidas." It focuses on climate change and management in protected natural reserve areas.
And that is especially important in the Sierra range, which is considered a biodiversity hotspot. The mountains boast cloud, pine and mixed-oak forests, as well as various swamps and moorlands. The region is home to three natural reserves that cover more than 2.5 million hectares of land. Researchers warn that climate change could wreak havoc on the area’s sensitive ecosystems, and the local residents.
That is why the new weather stations are intended to transmit data over 900 kilometers of land. "We picked different altitudes to measure, in order to create a better geographical profile of the Sierra Madre Oriental," said Camacho Castillo. And that’s little surprise since the Sierra Madre peaks soar as high as 3,700 meters above sea level.
Author: Caroline Ringel /ss
Editor: Sonia Phalnikar