This is a guest post is by Aradia Farmer.
How often do you wonder if you can contribute anything important to the world? I wondered a lot, until I found a group of meteorological volunteers who’s motto is “because every drop counts.” Because of a lack of data about specific rainfall patterns, the science of meteorology has grown slowly, but thanks to the ingenuity of the Colorado Climate Center, non-scientists can help tremendously just by measuring rainfall at their house and reporting it on a website, cocorahs.org. Instead of an expensive education and weather station, all a member of the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail & Snow Network (or, as it is affectionately called by its members, CoCoRaHS) needs is a rain gauge, an Internet connection, and a willingness to contribute. I think that the slogan “because every drop counts” can be inspiring to anyone who wants to make a difference, because it means that your data will be used in every state to forecast hazardous conditions, growing seasons, and tomorrow’s temperatures. When you volunteer with CoCoRaHS, you are making a valuable contribution to your community, your state, your country, and to science.
The slogan “because every drop counts” is displayed across the top of the CoCoRaHS website, just underneath the name of the group. The color-scheme of the page is light blue banners with dark blue lettering, and the slogan itself is in italics and quotes, as though it is a part of a conversation that the reader just walked in on, or is the response to a question implied by the reader’s presence. It is meant to be encouraging to anyone that doubts their usefulness to science, by framing the mission of the network as inviting and not intimidating, as science is so often seen, but still undeniably scientific. In the center of the homepage is a visual display of the rainfall reported across the country in the last 24 hours, which is an image-argument for every drop “counting.” The viewer can see a picture of where all the rain fell in the lower 48 states, because each observation is a colored dot corresponding to its location and volume (CoCoRaHS). For example, a typical tropical storm: in the center of the storm system (an area often spanning one or more states) there are orange dots represent upwards of three inches of rain, ringed by green dots that represent around two inches of rain, which is in turn ringed with blue and purple dots that represent one or less inches. The picture of the nation’s weather you see looking at this graphic is like a Georges Seurat painting, which are famous for using only primary colored dots to make meaningful, many-hued images when viewed from afar.
When you watch the rain pour down hard enough to overflow the gutters you might think “that is a LOT of rain, there might be landslides;” with only a few more moments a day you can contribute to real science, “because every drop counts” towards knowledge. For thousands of years humans have been trying to understand the weather, and we still hardly know what it will do tomorrow, so every observation made is an important step. CoCoRaHS isn’t just fun or interesting, it’s important for avoiding property damage and loss of life: the data gathered by the network is used by “the National Weather Service, other meteorologists, hydrologists, emergency managers, city utilities, insurance adjusters, USDA, engineers, mosquito control, ranchers and farmers” (CoCoRaHS). One of the biggest hurdles in meteorology, farming, military planning and more is a lack of actual, on-the-ground data. That is why the slogan of the network is so motivational: it is true. For example, here in the Pacific Northwest we see a lot of localized variation in our rainfall patterns, and those variations are valuable insights into atmospheric phenomena that can apply to weather around the world, but without observers there is no way to get those insights. And not only daily data matters; the rainfall patterns at one spot over the course of years are extremely useful for researching climate change, and quite difficult to get if research grants are what allow access to an observation point.
To better understand the importance of CoCoRaHS, consider the history of weather observing agencies. The United States has had a weather observing agency that utilized citizen scientists since 1890, when the National Weather Service was created. It has been invaluable to military and civil weather prediction, but has been unable to utilize the sheer number of individuals who could contribute observations. That niche was filled in 1998, when the Colorado Climate Center began a small network of minimally trained rain observers to try to predict local flooding, and found that the system not only worked well, it attracted more observers! In less than a decade all 50 states had dedicated CoCoRaHS members, many of whom were already National Weather Service spotters (CoCoRaHS).
What originally attracted me to the group was that it was oriented around rain, which I love, having been born and raised in Lane County. I was specifically excited to learn better how to predict how much rain would fall during a storm, because the rain-gauge we use shows how much rain fell to the 100th of an inch. How it works continues to amaze me, even though it is simple math: a four-inch diameter funnel catches the rain, and channels it into a 1-inch diameter tube, visually amplifying the amount of rain by a power of 10 so that precise measurements can be taken by eye. It has been a surprising education to realize how little rain might fall during a “rainy” day, and how much can fall in a particularly tempestuous afternoon. Encouragingly, my predictions have gotten a bit more accurate after only five months of observation!
The major drawback with citizen-science is the potential for inconsistent data. Research depends on consistency, because small errors at the observation level can have drastic consequences by the time they are all added up and summarized. That is why most research positions require a Ph.D! However, because the weather is so vast of a challenge to tackle, and simply gathering data that patterns can be inferred from is challenging enough, scientists are willing to accept possibly flawed data in place of total ignorance. I have made serious errors with the dates on some of my entries, but I edit what I can, and accept that since most of my data is correct, if there are some errors they won’t change the overall picture my data paints. Also, the people who use the data know that is it gathered by citizen-scientists, so they can give it an appropriate amount of skepticism.
There are those that may be uninspired after reading the slogan of CoCoRaHS, who might say that the website shows nearly the same data if you add to it or not each day, and scientists won’t take you completely seriously anyway if you’re just a citizen observer without a scientific degree. This is true, but if every person who has been inspired to contribute thought that way that colorful map of the US, where any layman can see the basic flow of precipitation across the continent, would be completely blank, devoid of any information at all. The weather affects everyone on Earth: understanding it is relevant to everyone, and also virtually impossible anytime in the near future. That is the alluring beauty of citizen-science; little amounts of time from many people add up to data-based conclusions a few scientists might spend a career making! The more of us contribute, the sooner we’ll know the answers to some of our most burning questions about the future of life on Earth. And there is the ideological argument behind the slogan of CoCoRaHS: you can count towards something of global importance.
I believe it so much that I’ve decided to get my degree in meteorology.
CoCoRaHS. 2010. April 15th 2011. Web.
You can read more by Aradia at http://theskyisspinning.blogspot.com/