The Weather Watchers
Rural weather volunteers add value to state and national weather reporting
Attention weather geeks, storm chasers, rain dancers, and others with their heads in the clouds: There’s a little known project called the Community Collaborative Rain Hail and Snow Network (CoCoRaHS)—and they need you. No experience necessary.
Born from fatality-causing flash floods in Colorado in 1997, CoCoRaHS is essentially a network of 10,000 volunteers across the country who post observations of weather conditions from their own backyards to the organization’s website.
“No fancy equipment or training is necessary, just a willingness to contribute and a working internet connection,” says Cindy Morgan Lutrell, statewide coordinator of CoCoRaHS. She’s also manager of network monitoring and data quality for Mesonet, whose broad umbrella of weather data collection includes CoCoRaHS. It is Lutrell’s job to monitor reports contributed by 180 Oklahoma volunteers located in 59 counties. Ideally, volunteers submit their observations daily, but “whatever they are able to do we are happy to take,” she says.
While parts of the state are well represented—namely Norman, Oklahoma City and Tulsa—Lutrell says rural areas need more active, on-the-ground observers to ensure the most accurate data collection possible. Mesonet automated data stations exist in each county, but the stations can be 30 to 50 miles apart, she explains. Weather radar, while extremely valuable, is rarely accurate to the inch.
“Observers with old fashioned rain gauges help us fill in these gaps,” Lutrell says. “The National Weather Service, which is a huge user of this network, is able to marry the manual reports with radar and satellite data and fine tune it.”
Volunteers submit daily precipitation reports and weekly or monthly condition monitoring reports using forms available on the CoCoRaHS website. Both provide space for comments and general observations of weather effects. Volunteers experiencing toad-strangling rains or heavy snow are urged to report it using the significant weather report form.
“This goes immediately to the National Weather Service so they can issue flood warnings based on these reports,” Lutrell adds.
For meteorologists, reports from CoCoRaHS allow them to incorporate the all-important human impact of weather into their broadcasts.
“Automated weather stations can’t tell us if the alfalfa died, if ponds went dry or there are no seeds,” she points out.
The after-the-fact information is free and is useful across many different industries. Over time, the data will provide a comprehensive, wide-angle view of state weather patterns.
“We improve our data archives of what falls across the state in terms of precipitation, and this knowledge makes people more aware of their water resources so they can better manage them,” Lutrell says.
Users of the network run the gamut from engineers to utility professionals. Farmers use the website to predict crop yields or assess irrigation needs. For insurance agents, the site is handy to forecast storm damage estimates and review claims. Construction companies log on to check moisture levels in the soil prior to kicking off projects, while the Army Corps of Engineers, USDA, the Soil Conservation Service and other agencies rely heavily on the site to monitor daily precipitation, drought conditions, wind, humidity, snow and hail.
At Anadarko-based Western Farmers Electric Cooperative (WFEC), CEO Gary Roulet logs on every morning to check rainfall amounts throughout the western half of the state, as well as wind, humidity, and other weather conditions.
“It’s is a great way to get free weather information where you might not typically be able to get it—in the rural areas around Oklahoma,” Roulet says.
WFEC power plants in Anadarko and Hugo rely on millions of gallons of water from local lakes to create the steam necessary to generate power. Checking the site for moisture levels in the reservoir watersheds keeps Roulet informed of the amount of water available for generation. It also helps him predict short-term generation needs.
“In WFEC’s world, every single day we have to forecast what our load is going to be for the following day. We have to forecast peak load and be responsible for generating the energy to meet that load,” he says. “Wind, temperature, humidity, all of these factors go into that projected number.”
Currently, severe drought is forcing western Oklahoma farmers to pump water on thirsty crops. Because irrigation comprises roughly 10 percent of WFEC’s load, Roulet looks to the network to predict energy demand in areas where irrigation is substantial.
Roulet is also a volunteer observer for the organization.
“Every morning I check my rain gauge and I report it when I get to work,” he says.
Afterward, he brings up the big map to see what’s going on across the state, or he uses the handy app.
He refers others to the site whenever possible and has created fans among those unfamiliar with its benefits.
“A lot of people don’t know this exists. It’s a good tool for farmers, and it’s a great way to keep track of what’s going on across the state,” Roulet adds.
Perhaps the greater genius lies in the organization’s simple appeal to everyday citizen scientists whose contributions enhance the understanding of weather patterns—and can potentially save lives.
“One of the best things about this is that people want to contribute to it and it’s inexpensive and easy for them to participate,” Lutrell says. “Because of that, it’s a very successful and cost effective way to measure our weather across the state.”
Make the network a favorite on your internet browser and get the real scoop on Oklahoma weather: www.cocorahs.org.
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