Weather Assistants


(This 987th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on February 21, 2010.)


Ed Wagner adjusts his precipitation gauge


Do you know who CoCoRaHS are? Berserk cheerleaders perhaps?


It turns out that the acronym is for the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network, a nationwide group of volunteer amateur meteorologists who collect daily precipitation measurements that supplement and enhance those of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and our local Weather Service Forecast Office.


There are fifteen of these observers in Erie County, another dozen in the surrounding counties. Ed Wagner of Olean has communicated to me some of his experiences:


"I read an article about the program in 2008, and decided to sign up. I purchased the standard rain gauge, costing about $30. Before sending in data, observers are asked to attend a class or do on-line training. There weren't nearby classes so I watched the videos and read the guides. The training material was comprehensive and very well done.


"The rain gauge is easy to install and use: on a fence or other post, on a deck or outside table. I made my "snowboard" as recommended by the training material.


"Data collection is not difficult. We're asked to take measurements each morning between 7 and 9 a.m., which is compatible with my work schedule.


"Measuring rain is the easiest. It is read from the gauge itself. The actual mechanics of measuring, including compensating for overflows, are a bit more complicated, but still take only a few minutes.


"I generally make three snow measurements, a little more involved, but still easy. The depth of new snow over the preceding 24 hours is measured on the snowboard. Mine is far enough away from my house to avoid the house shielding snowfalls.


"To measure total snow depth on the ground I make three or four measurements at various spots and average them for greater accuracy. And finally, the water content of new snow is measured. The rain gauge is used to collect new snow over the past 24 hours. I take the whole gauge, with snow inside it, into my kitchen, pour a known quantity of hot water into it to melt the snow and measure the total. The increase equals the water content of the new snow.


"I'm not home during the workday so if I feel my data isn't accurate at the next morning's observation time (heavy drifting or settling of snow, for example) I skip the report or leave a comment qualifying my data. The whole process of measuring snow generally takes me about 10 minutes. I've gotten into the practice of starting my car first, checking snow, and then leaving for work just about the time my car has warmed up.


"I then send in my data on the internet, another few minutes' effort. Part of that time is checking maps to see what others have submitted. I'm most interested in Western New York, but my daughter is in school in Michigan and my father-in-law is in Florida, so I frequently check to see how their weather was over the past day. I probably know more about the snowfall and snow depth in Ann Arbor than my daughter does, even though she's out in it every day.


"There is no penalty for missing a day or sending in only partial data.


"I've had a few questions that I emailed to Steve McLaughlin, our supervisor at the Buffalo Weather Office. He got right back to me with helpful suggestions. The state supervisor, Kathryn Vreeland of Cornell University and the project director, Nolan Doesken in Colorado, send out informational bulletins. Also quite interesting: some observers submit daily comments: their neighbor's flooded yard, how much snow is left on the ground, even what their plans are for the day. I haven't met any other observers but their locations are listed and can be looked up. That's how I conclude most are individual amateurs like me.    


"It has been a tremendous learning experience, and I have a new appreciation for the skill of professional meteorologists and the challenges they face. I'm also encouraged by the fact that my data constitutes useful information to scientists."


I salute Ed Wagner and his colleagues as citizen scientists of the first order. You can learn more and volunteer to join at the CoCoRaHS website.-- Gerry Rising