The Ancient and the Modern

The last week of March 2012 saw the rolling out of another MEA Weather Station Network. The key differences between this and other MEA networks are 1) its location in remote indigenous communities in the northwest of South Australia and 2) the consequent need for the use of a satellite network to push the weather observations to the internet. This network is another feather in MEA's well-established cap and follows on from networks supplied to the Murray Darling Basin NRM board, the South East NRM Board and the McLaren Vale Grape Wine & Tourism Association to mention a few. If you want to see what we've been up to, visit the 'Weather' pages on this website and click on the 'Free Weather Data' tab.

Monday 26th saw Terry Creer and myself making the haul from Adelaide to Ceduna on South Australia's west coast. The drive can be a little monotonous after you leave the Flinders Ranges behind at Port Augusta, but we did get to see the Big Galah at Kimba!

The following day we met our guides and assistants, Olly and Nathan from the Alinytjura Wilurara NRM Board. After a quick trip to obtain provisions for the week and secure the weather stations in the NRM trailer we began the drive north to Oak Valley, where the first weather station was to be situated. Just off the blacktop we stopped in for a quick "Hello" to the people in Yalata, then hit the dirt.  

North of Yalata the sandy country gives way to an arid limestone landscape that underscores the immense age of this continent. At the Ooldea railway crossing a massive mobile communications tower rises out of the saltbush and as we approached Terry's mobile 'peeped' with SMS messages. Mobile service all the way out here? It was unexpected and it was the last mobile service for the next few days. We rolled through the country wondering how anybody could have moved through it prior to the advent of four-wheel drives. Later we met a man who's Grandfather walked over 500km with his family from the far north-west to Ooldea, using traditional knowlege of the way water flows across and underneath these ancient lands to stay alive. Off the Maralinga road we were back into red sandy country dominated by desert oaks and spinifex. Six hours after leaving Ceduna we arrived at the tiny indigenous community of Oak Valley. After a dazzling desert sunset and an excellent tuna pasta meal whipped up by Olly, we settled into our accomodation for the evening.

Weather Station at Oak ValleyWednesday morning saw us gather at the Oak Valley school. The first weather station was to go into a compound adjacent to the school, built by members of the local CDEP program. Terry and I set to work installing the station. After a couple of hours we had the station assembled and working and went to meet the staff and students at the school. Principal Bob gave a short address to the students to let them know who we were and why we were there, then lead them to the weather station for a show-and-tell.

I gave a short talk explaining what the various instruments on the station are and what they do.  Back in Teacher Orla's classroom I attempted to explain how the ultrasonic wind sensor worked by likening it to the way a bat locates its prey on the wing, then played 'teacher tag' with Orla and Olly as we explained how the weather station measurements related to the Water Cycle. You've got to be a bit flexible working at MEA, technician one moment, impromptu primary teacher the next. I wondered if any of what we were saying about the hyrdological cycle (explained without big words like 'hydrological') was sinking in. A very tired Olly had written up a presentation the previous evening with some assistance from myself. Satisfied with her efforts and about to turn in at the end of a long day, her laptop began showing the infamous 'blue screen of death' - in the morning it could not be revived... all that work and nothing to show! Paul at the CDEP depot cheerfully came to the rescue, letting Olly take over his computer for a last-minute re-write. She emerged a couple of hours later with a brand-new series of handout sheets - what a trouper! In the classroom the handouts were put to good use and with assistance from Olly, Terry, Nathan, Paul and Orla, the children demonstrated that they had understood everything perfecly well.

Wednesday afternoon we met Chris the local Technical Services Officer. Chris helps keep the community going by carting water, grading roads and ensuring that the town power supply stays up and running - no pressure there. Without enough to do (right?) Chris also expressed an interest in helping with the smooth running of the weather stations. Terry took him through the modest maintenance requirements of the weather station step-by-step with a group also including Bob, Paul, Olly, Nathan and Seb from the school.

Back at the school, Terry installed MEA's Magpie software on a 'net connected laptop and we could see the first recordings from the weather station rolling in. Far from the mobile network, these stations use a Thuraya satellite to shift data from the weather station to the internet. MEA's Packet Data Terminal automatically unloads the observations in the weather station and stores them locally for transmission. The terminal then wakes up the satellite modem in the comms box, which requests attention from a satellite in geostationary orbit 35 000km above Singapore. The satellite uses a GPS antenna on the weather station to help focus a tight beam on the weather station and the transfer of data begins. The initial destination for the weather observations is MEA's FTP server in Magill. From there our clients at the AW NRM board can access the observations using Magpie software.

It was my turn to cook dinner and I fed the crew on stir-fried pork, veggies and noodles. "Not too bad", I thought as I ate, "could use a bit of extra flavour though. I should've remembered to buy some herbs or something". As we packed up on the last day I re-discovered the fresh coriander and basil I'd bought for this very reason ... at the back of the fridge. They don't make outback tragedies like they used to, though Baz Lurhman could probably make something of it.

Scrubland near Rodinia AirstripThursday we picked up local man Ivan and headed west to the Rodinia Oilfield Airstrip, 50km from the WA border and site of the second weather station. As we went west the dunes and the plants got bigger, just as Ivan had told us they would the night before. Ivan had helped build the compounds at Oak Valley and Rodinia and was keen to get back west to see the country again.

Why put a weather station inside a 2m high wire-mesh compound? "Camels" would be your answer there, the outback is rife with them. Do you know how much damage a Camel would suffer whilst pushing a weather station over? No damage at all, so we put the stations inside compounds.

After a brief rest stop in stunning Allocasuarina woodland we arrived at the Rodinia Airstrip. With nothing to hold us up we had the weather station up in good time with help from Ivan and Nathan. Nathan produced a map to show us where we were and it was at this point that Ivan told us how his grandfather had walked all the way from Wattaru to Ooldea with his young family all those years ago. Afterwards I felt a bit 'soft' climbing into our air-conditioned dual-cab.

Weather Station at Rodinia Oilfield AirstripDiagnostics at the Rodinia weather station showed all to be working faultlessly but, as we always do, we 'phoned in for a comms check', borrowing Olly's sat-phone for the purpose. Back in Adelaide Tracey confirmed all was good with the stations at Rodinia and Oak Valley. We were certain that would be the case, but at MEA we don't think there's any point 'dotting the i's' unless you 'cross the t's' as well.

With everything in good order, we made the three hour trip back to Oak Valley for a BBQ and our last night there. We left at dawn the next day, stopping to see the Galahs at one of the shed tanks that help serve as water supplies in these driest of places. Back on the Iluka Haul Road north of the A1 we had to stop for a few minutes while the road was being sealed. After days of dust and corrugations we could see the point.

That last night at Oak Valley I sat out in the scrub under the sort of sky you only get far away from city lights. While my camera recorded the slow drift of stars I reflected on what we had acheived. I grew up in the remote bush in the late 60's. To make a telephone call you had to ring Mrs Jackson down at the Post Office and ask her to 'patch you through'. Before that my grandmother literally had to pedal the RFDS radio to make contact with the outside world. Decades later I'm awed by the fact that the information from these weather stations can reliably make a round trip of over 70 000km from tiny isolated communities into space and back, in seconds!

Terry and Brett would like to thank all at Oak Valley for their help and hospitality during our time there. Huge thanks to our tireless guides Olly and Nathan for their safe, well-organised approach to the trip (and for pointing out interesting things to photograph).

Where to next for MEA weather stations? Well, in the next month or so we'll complete the installation of the AW NRM network. The remaining three stations will be placed at locations near the Northern Territory Border, in the awesomely photogenic Musgrave Ranges. I'm not scheduled to go on that trip. I hope neither of the guys rostered to do the install gets sick or anything so that I have to take their place. I really do.

After that, we've got a biggie going in interstate. You'll hear about it in due course, but I can't tell you anything about it right now - if I did tell you ... they'd have to fire me, and I don't want that. Suffice to say that right now we're building weather stations as fast as we can build them well. These weather stations will be the first of a new generation which will ultimately be available in four different models, the result of a top effort by our Engineering and technical staff. Our aim is to stay at the 'bleeding edge' of weather station design and manufacture. We know that if we stand still we may get pushed over by the competition (or a camel).

If you think you might be in the market for a weather station (or even a network of them!), give MEA a call and talk to Tanya, Tracey or Joe.