Volunteers keep tabs on rain, snow

By ERIK STIEM

Capital News Service

LANSING – It has a long name, but the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network (CoCoRaHS) makes quick and easy work of measuring precipitation.

Rainfall and snowfall have long been difficult to monitor. But that’s less of a problem now, thanks to a simple rain gauge and citizen participation, said Jeff Andresen, the state climatologist and coordinator of the Michigan chapter of the national group known as CoCoRaHS.

Anyone can join. The only requirements are a rain gauge and an enthusiasm for the environment, said Andresen, who is also an associate professor of geography at Michigan State University.

The gauge is a 14-inch-tall-by-4¼-inch wide cylinder containing a measuring tube that holds up to an inch of fallen water. The measurements go by increments of one hundredth of an inch. It’s easy to read and observers record their data online, preferably every morning, Andresen said.

The information goes into a database used by many organizations, including the National Weather Service, which uses it to monitor precipitation where its radar doesn’t reach.

The Weather Service also uses snow measurements recorded by CoCoRaHS to predict how much water will be added to rivers when the snow melts, said Noah Newman, the education director for CoCoRaHS. That information helps predict floods.

CoCoRaHS started in 1998 in Colorado as a response to thunderstorms in 1997 that caused devastating floods and multiple deaths, Andresen said.

The program has more than 18,000 observers from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Michigan hosts more than 700 of them.

CoCoRaHS went international in 2011, and there are more than 370 Canadian observers since said Zach Schwalbe, national coordinator for CoCoRaHS.

Each day, roughly 10,000 members report measurements.

Andresen said the program gives participants the sense of direct involvement with monitoring the environment. “It’s a chance for people to actually get their hands dirty. It’s a way to get physically involved.”

CoCoRaHS is an example of an “ultimate grassroots volunteer community effort to monitor precipitation,” Andresen said. Its funders include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation, but most support comes from donations.

A big reason why these volunteers are vital to weather forecasting is a lack of sites to observe precipitation, Andresen said.

For example, during the 1997 Colorado floods, the thunderstorms only a few miles wide occurred between observation sites. As a result, the National Weather Service was unaware that the storm system was dumping so much rain and was unable to issue proper flood warnings.

The idea for a community-driven precipitation network was put together by Nolan Doesken, the state climatologist for Colorado.

Andresen said Doesken knew it would greatly expand the area of observations in a way that wouldn’t cost a lot of money and would allow citizens’ direct involvement with a critical issue.

Participants like Alex Melendez of Mount Pleasant appreciate the chance to help out.

“I have been interested in weather since childhood and I’ve always wanted to help people,” Melendez said. “When CoCoRaHs started, I wanted to jump on the opportunity of helping the National Weather Service.”

Observers pay $25 for the rain gauge and take a training session to become part of CoCoRaHS, Andresen said.

Training may be done online or in person. Both methods take around three hours to complete. Beyond that, it’s relatively hassle-free. Measuring rain is simple and takes only a minute to record and enter online, he said.

The only bit of a hassle is measuring snow because the observer must melt it to determine how much water was in the snow. The amount of snow per inch of water can range from 6 inches for the wettest snow to 25 or more inches for drier, lake-effect type snow, Andresen said.

Erik Stiem writes for Great Lakes Echo.

Resources for CNS editors:

Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network

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