In Georgia, you can pretty much count on cold weather from October to March. People can protect themselves by staying indoors or wearing warm clothes. It’s not as easy for crops. Accurate temperatures and weather observations are vital to farmers.
Cold temperatures in fall, winter or late spring can threaten row crops, fruit trees and horticultural plants. Exposure to freezing temperatures can result in significant damage or even total crop loss.
To get the weather data they need, hundreds of thousands turn to the University of Georgia Automated Environmental Monitoring Network, a collection of 75 weather stations located across the state. There is a station in South Carolina and one in the middle of Lake Seminole too.
“The potential for frost damage depends on local conditions,” said Joel Paz, UGA Cooperative Extension agrometeorologist. “Monitoring can prevent and/or minimize frost damage.”
Frost damage causes more economic damage, he said, than any other weather-related phenomenon.
North Georgia vineyards need frost data to protect grapes, said Greg Sheppard, a UGA Extension agent in Lumpkin County.
“People with commercial fruit operations watch temperatures and anticipate upcoming weather,” Sheppard said. “Grapes are sensitive to a late frost. The critical time is in the spring when they begin to bud out. When they start to swell, they become susceptible to frost.”
A new prediction model on the weather stations provides hourly air temperature predictions up to 12 hours ahead.
“The information can be used in decision making when localized future air temperatures is an important factor, like in frost protection for fruits, vegetables and ornamentals,” said Gerrit Hoogenboom, a professor with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences who started the network in 1991.
In south Georgia, blueberry farmers watch frost predictions carefully so they can protect their early-blooming Southern highbush variety.
“Frost protection is important for blueberries,” said Bob Boland, the UGA Extension coordinator in Brantley County. “We use the weather information to tell us when to turn on the irrigation system to protect the berries. Our growers are using the forecasting tool to help us hone in on when to utilize the irrigation system to prevent frost damage.”
Each weather station monitors air temperature, relative humidity, rainfall, wind speed and direction, solar radiation, soil temperature, soil moisture and barometric pressure. It’s updated every 15 minutes and is posted to the Web site www.Georgiaweather.net. Users can obtain average temperature, total rainfall, average soil temperature and calculate chilling hours and degree-days for a selected period.
“We have used the site a lot to monitor rainfall and report on the drought,” Sheppard said. “Commercial landscapers use the information to determine the optimum time to apply pre-emergent crabgrass killers.”
Boland said hay and peanut farmers use the network, too. “We are fortunate to have this tool in Georgia. It is a vital tool,” he said.
The weather data isn’t just for farmers.
“Our network is the densest network across the state and the largest network in the Southeast,” Hoogenboom said. “The National Weather Service uses our data for reporting.”
The National Agriculture Statistics Service uses the data for weekly crop-progress reports. The Georgia Forestry Commission uses the information to issue daily fire predictions.
One weather station was recently installed on UGA’s Costa Rican campus, funded through a donation.
“It is a very unique site, high in the mountains and next to a wildlife reserve,” Hoogenboom said. “The weather station could help with organic coffee growing nearby, and it could help with pest management.”
Additional weather information can be found at www.georgiaweather.net.
(April R. Sorrow is a science writer with the University of Georgia Public Affairs Office.)
Peaches hang in a south Georgia orchard July 2009. This year's cold winter has benefitted the state's peach crop.Download Image