Citizen science at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue

Every morning, State Climatologist Nolan Doesken looks at a map of North America freckled with dots representing thousands of weather stations in a network he created in 1998: the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network (CoCoRaHs).

One of those dots now represents a rain gauge placed in the First Lady’s Kitchen Garden at the White House in Washington.

Doesken was pleasantly surprised when the White House request to be a weather volunteer came in. Perhaps he shouldn’t be. The CoCoRaHs network now serves a host of users including the National Weather Service, other meteorologists, hydrologists, emergency managers, city utilities, insurance adjusters, USDA, engineers, mosquito control ranchers and farmers, outdoor and recreation interests, teachers, students, and — most likely — one of your neighbors, including this journalist.

It all started with a devastating Colorado flood. July 28, 1997, southwest Fort Collins received 14.5” of rain (a year’s average) in 31 hours. Morgan Library and Lory Student Center on Colorado State University campus suffered severe damage. South of campus, five people drowned when mobile homes washed down Spring Creek. Far less rain fell just a few miles away. At the time, there were simply too few people measuring rainfall and no consistent method to consolidate such reports in any case. Doesken took steps the following year to insure that future storms would never make such devastating surprise attacks again.

The network spread slowly at first in Colorado and neighboring states. It expanded greatly in 2003 and again in 2006 with support from the National Science Foundation and the National Atmospheric and Oceanographic Administration. Today, the PRISM Climate Group at Oregon State University provides 90 percent of the funding because they feel CoCoRaHs is critical to their goals of creating data sets to track short- and long-term weather patterns. Water utilities also provide significant funding. Data now pours into the network from all 50 states, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, and Canada’s 10 provinces.

It may seem quaint that volunteers armed with plastic gauges, rulers, plywood snow boards and foam hail pads can generate important data with higher tech options now available, but Doesken emphasized at a talk to the local American Meteorological Society on May 21, that the network’s measurements are superior to automated systems for long-term weather recording. It’s also rewarding for the citizen scientists who participate.

This reporter began taking measurements Aug. 19, 2012 — in part motivated by a huge thunderstorm the previous month that had my wife and I bailing out window wells for an hour.

Local science teacher, Vicky Jordan, had also recently reminded me of the organization. I now have complete and detailed information for three years not only about moisture totals, but also when frosts and snows first arrived, hail storms, and some personal notes about what else was going on in my life. Taking and recording measurements takes relatively little time (except for some of the snowfall measurements), creates valuable data and appeals to my obsessive-compulsive, detail-oriented personality.

It turns out that the White House was (briefly) a weather station before. Thomas Jefferson, the first scientist in the White House, kept weather records for 50 years in his “Weather Memorandum Book” and continued the practice sporadically while in the White House.

Colorado also was the site of some of the earliest systematic weather recording as part of efforts by the U.S. Army Signal Service and the Smithsonian Institution in the 1870s. In the 1880s the Colorado State Weather Service appropriated $2,000 to collect weather data. For a while, extending into the 1890s, a fairly robust network of wealthy and curious professionals (for the most part) tracked the weather—mostly to try and figure out how to make predictions that would benefit agricultural planning.

During and after the terrible Fort Collins flood of 1997, Doesken struggled to gather data on a pinpoint weather event that brought 12” of rain to campus, but only a few inches just miles away. He said they even went door-to-door asking who had a rain gauge and what were the readings. In 2013, when a similar event struck near Boulder, he was gratified that 2,500 reports streamed in from the CoCoRaHs network —even from some people who had lost homes, but trekked over mountainous terrai n to take measurements from their rain gauges.

So now, every morning, Doesken gets up to look at his weather report stats from CoCoRaHs and sees that thousands of others have gotten out of bed too to diligently read their rain gauges and jot down the results in their “weather memoranda books.” It’s enough to send a chill of excitement up his spine to know that he is doing something valuable that has relevance today and into the future. He’s in the good company of presidents, teachers, farmers, scientists, and a bunch of people who are perpetually curious about the natural world around them.

If you want to take a look at what’s going on or become a volunteer, check out cocorahs.org. They need all the obsessive-compulsive help they can get.

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