Weather, Grapes, Undergrads in Labs

WSU’s AgWeatherNet Team Tests State-of-the-Art Weather Prediction Model for Freeze Events

Hail damage to a Sunnyside, Wash., apple crop on July 20. Better prediction of extreme weather events, such as the severe thunderstorm that resulted in the hail damage, is the subject of a study by AgWeatherNet. Photo courtesy AgWeatherNet.
Hail damage to a Sunnyside, Wash., apple crop on July 20. Better prediction of extreme weather events, such as the severe thunderstorm that resulted in the hail damage, is the subject of a study by AgWeatherNet. Photo courtesy AgWeatherNet.

Washington tree fruit growers are often at the mercy of Mother Nature when it comes to weather. Case in point: the severe thunderstorms of July 20 that, in some areas of south-central Washington, battered apple crops with golf ball-sized hail, leaving some orchards with losses of 100 percent.

But AgWeatherNet, Washington State University’s automated weather station network, is testing a national, state-of-the-art weather forecasting model as a possible tool for to predict such weather systems, especially for parts of the state where tree fruit crops are important.

“AgWeatherNet only provides current weather conditions,” said Gerrit Hoogenboom, the network’s director and WSU professor of agrometeorology. “Adding a weather prediction component will allow growers to make more informed decisions with respect to knowing both the conditions that have occurred and the upcoming predicted weather conditions. This can be applied in preparation for extreme weather events such as frosts and freezes, as well as inputs into other models for pest, disease and other management decision aids.”

AgWeatherNet releases monthly weather summaries, and weekly weather outlooks and warnings based on data received from its 137 automated weather stations located across Washington state. But it doesn’t make predictions of air temperature, dew-point temperature, and wind speed and direction, Hoogenboom said. Coming up with accurate predictions given south-central Washington’s varied terrain has been a challenge.

That’s where the Weather Research and Forecasting (WRF) Model comes in. According to the WRF website, the model is a next-generation mesoscale numerical weather prediction system designed to serve both operational forecasting and atmospheric research needs. “Mesoscale” meteorology means the study of weather systems ranging from a few miles to hundreds of miles wide. WRF can be applied for storm-scale research and prediction, air-quality modeling, wildfire simulation, hurricane and tropical storm prediction, regional climate prediction, and more.

“It can provide us with hourly weather predictions at a very high spatial resolution—close to a 2-by-2-mile grid,” Hoogenboom said.

Hoogenboom, postdoc Tes Ghidey, AgWeatherNet meteorologist Nic Loyd, and WSU civil and environmental engineering associate professor Heping Liu evaluated WRF’s prediction capabilities for three actual freeze/frost events recorded by AgWeatherNet on Feb. 24-27, April 7, and Oct. 25-27, 2011. The team also provided the model with terrain information, such as elevation, land-use, and vegetation coverage.

Results were processed on a high-performance computer purchased with part of the $95,000 in funding from the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, which supported the one-year study.

“The model actually performed well for low elevations in eastern Washington and for providing 24- to 48-hour predictions,” Hoogenboom said. “Longer out was more difficult. We are trying to develop a parameter scheme so that it will do better.”

The next step is testing the model for real-time weather predictions by storing its results and comparing them with the actual observations from AgWeatherNet, Hoogenboom said. The researchers have been running the model nightly since Aug. 1.

“Our goal is to develop a protocol for implementing the WRF model as a freeze forecasting tool for AgWeatherNet,” he said.

–Nella Letizia

For more information about AgWeatherNet, visit the website.

Washington State Juice Grape Producers to Rate Sustainability through WSU ‘Report Card’

Concord grape cluster.
Concord grape cluster.

WSU researchers are developing an assessment tool to help juice grape growers determine the sustainability of their operations. The “Washington State Juice Grape Sustainability Report Card” is the first step toward statewide efforts to define and support sustainable growing practices on more than 26,000 acres of Washington’s Concord and Niagara vineyards.

“Sustainability, by definition, is long-term business survival. Farming, especially in perennial crops, is not a short-term process,” said Michelle Moyer, WSU viticulture extension specialist. “Knowing where growers can improve, economically and environmentally, as well as in terms of employee health and safety, will ultimately lead to more successful businesses.”

Sustainability can be defined as being good environmental stewards while, at the same time, being economically profitable over the long term, as well as enhancing the quality of life for producers and their communities.

Retailers, including Walmart, are putting increasing pressure on juice and food processors to document the sustainability of their production practices, Moyer said. “Sustainability sells products and shows customers that producers care about the long-term impact of their businesses on the environment, economics and social equity, although most tend to focus on the environmental aspect,” Moyer said.

Juice grape growers using the Sustainability Report Card will be able to evaluate their operations around a number of key areas, including vineyard, nutrient, irrigation, pest and pesticide management, as well as new vineyard establishment practices, and continuing education on emerging issues and pesticide handling.

WSU scientists and Extension personnel created a draft of the Sustainability Report Card this year and sought feedback from Washington producers of juice grapes for National Grape Cooperative, the grower cooperative for Welch’s. So far, 193 growers have completed the draft assessment, which represents more than 90 percent of the cooperative’s state members, said NGC’s Craig Bardwell. The goal is to receive assessments from all Washington members before harvest. Revisions will be made to the Sustainability Report Card this fall based on comments received from the growers.

Michigan and New York have vineyard sustainability programs in place, but they are not juice-grape specific like the one being developed in Washington, Moyer said. In addition, Washington juice grape growers have many sustainable production practices already in place, as an inherent feature of producing juice grapes in Washington’s geography and climate. “Washington juice grape production is, for the most part, one of the more sustainable production systems in the country,” she added. “Concord production is very low input. Now we’re putting a number to it.”

–Nella Letizia

For more information about the Sustainability Report Card, visit the WSU Viticulture and Enology website.

Encouraging the Next Generation of Scientists

Three undergraduate researchers. L-R: Brittanty LeGrant, Jasmine Scott, Sequoia Leuba.
Three undergraduate researchers. L-R: Brittanty LeGrant, Jasmine Scott, Sequoia Leuba.

Eighteen-year-old Sequoia Leuba was already a seasoned researcher when she came to work this summer in the lab of WSU horticultural genomicist Amit Dhingra. In ninth grade, while her peers were just starting to classify the unseen world of microbes, Leuba was conducting research at a University of Pittsburgh microbiology lab.

At 14, she discovered and characterized a new virus—called a mycobacteriophage, or “phage” for short—that infects certain bacteria, some of which can cause serious diseases. She sequenced and annotated the virus a year later. She called her phage Fang. Her work was published in 2011 with other researchers who also described new phage genomes in the peer-reviewed scientific and medical research journal PLoS One.

And she just finished her freshman year at Yale. How was Dhingra going to keep a mind like Leuba’s engaged? By having her work on not one, but three research projects in three months.

“As a mentor, she was a challenge because she had so much experience. It’s amazing how wonderful these students are,” Dhingra said during the Summer 2012 WSU Undergraduate Research Poster Symposium on August 3.

Leuba joined more than 50 outstanding students from over 30 universities who spent their summer at WSU conducting research and attending workshops in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, culminating in the poster symposium. They worked with more than 40 WSU faculty members from May through July on everything from air quality to biofuel emissions, and from nanoporous materials to respiratory disease pathogens.

Several projects were supported by the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates program, offered each summer at host universities around the country, including WSU.

Leuba came to Pullman because she wanted a research experience that was completely different from her previous background in microbiology, she said. And she got it in Dhingra’s lab.

“This has been very valuable because of the diversity of the people I’ve met and the diversity of the experiences I’ve had here,” she said. “I still learned new things because this is plant-based. I’d be open to coming back and working with plants again. There’s a lot of science out there to explore.”

Read the rest of this story by Nella Letizia.