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Shower The National Weather Service With Data By Being A Backyard Weather Observer

Hannah Russell

You get a rain gauge, measure the precipitation once a day, and upload the information via the web or app—it’s a citizen science project that only takes a few minutes and has real-time application, said Henry Reges, national coordinator of the precipitation reporting network known as CoCoRaHS. 

“CoCoRaHS is the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network,” said Reges. “We’ve been around since 1998 and have about 20,000 volunteers across the United States.”

According to CoCoRaHS, every drop of precipitation counts, and everyone—from families, schools, scientists, and retirees—is encouraged to be a backyard weather observer.

“Even if you’re not a big weather fan, we find people become weather fans after a while. What they realize is how much rain actually falls in their area and where the water comes from,” Reges said. “It’s an educational project as well.”

Jon Meyer, climate scientist and CoCoRaHS coordinator for the state of Utah, and myself visited new volunteer Linda Keith's home. While training resources are available online, coordinators like Jon are happy to personally assist people. Coordinators will help volunteers find the best location for their rain gauge and teach them how to accurately report the amount of precipitation.

Credit Rhesa Ledbetter
New CoCoRaHS volunteer Linda Keith learns how to accurately take precipitation measurements from Jon Meyer, CoCoRaHS coordinator for the state of Utah.

Linda recently purchased her “official” CoCoRaHS rain gauge for $30. Identical gauges are required by CoCoRaHS to help maintain accurate reporting across the network.

“Your kit will include this mounting back, your 4-inch diameter plastic gauge, your 1-inch inner gauge, and the funnel that will go on the top here,” Jon explained to Linda.

The conversation that followed this brief explanation of the rain gauge was quite unexpected and had us distilling the concept of CoCoRaHS down in a brand new way.

“[The gauge] is so scientific,” said Linda.

“Anything with graduated lines makes you feel like a scientist, doesn’t it?”Jon said.

“Or a bartender,” Linda quipped.

With that, we had some new slogans for CoCoRaHS, “Bartending for the atmosphere” and “CoCoRaHS—it makes you feel like a bartender.”

We were on quite a roll with the bartending analogy. Amongst the laughter though, it was clear that Linda is a big fan of weather.  

“I am fascinated by this,” she said. “I don’t know why I haven’t looked for something like this to do before, because I am just that curious. I really am interested in seeing what kind of precipitation we get right here at my house.”

CoCoRaHS was born following a flash flood in Ft. Collins, CO in 1997.

“There weren’t many observations out there—we really didn’t know what fell where,” Reges, the national coordinator said. “If people were measuring at the time, we could have gotten information to the weather service, warnings could have gone out for flash floods, and so forth. It’s like extra eyes and ears for the Weather Service.

"The limited time volunteers spend is infinitely valuable for a better forecast." -Monica Traphagan, Meteorologist

I visited the National Weather Servicein Salt Lake City hoping to learn more about how they use the CoCoRaHS data. Meteorologists, Monica Traphagan and Randy Graham convinced me that backyard weather observations really do matter.

“Long story short—information is power,” Traphagan said. “It used to be that when you were doing this years and years ago, you just had a few observation stations here and there. CoCoRaHS is one great way to get us more information—this broad network of people recording precipitation on a daily basis.”

“We like to look back and learn from events. If we start seeing a bunch of heavy snow reports occurring in a certain part of the state that we haven’t had reports from in the past, then we’ll start looking into that and be able to better forecast them in the future,” said Graham.

Traphagan emphasized that sparse observation networks can also miss things like large differences in snow or rainfall within short distances, like just across town.

“The limited time you are spending is infinitely valuable for a better forecast,” she said. “You can be a part of what we’re doing. If you’re interested in weather, it can be fun too.”

As the Weather Service puts it—you’re not putting data out into the big blue sky. All reports are valuable, even reports of no precipitation.

“When we receive people’s daily precipitation reports, we put out what’s called a Public Information Statement,” said Traphagan. “It is for the media and public use, where we compile the data from all of our observation networks. If you’re a CoCoRaHS person, your data will be included—everybody’s looking at it.”

Credit National Weather Service
The National Weather Service's precipitation report, which includes all data generated by CoCoRaHS volunteers.

And it's not just forecasters who use the data—water managers, mosquito control, hydrologists, and researchers do too.

I asked new volunteer Linda if she realized the impact her observations could have—that the National Weather Service and others would  actually use her data. Perhaps, in the ingenious form of Linda, I should say, the National Weather Service drinks all the beer they’re served by the bartender.

“That’s really neat,” she said. “I am going to watch the weather report more often. Really makes you feel like you’re doing something real. I say, ‘Come on, get your rain gauge, let’s go.’”

Additional information: To learn more about volunteering and for additional resources on the network, please visit the CoCoRaHS website.