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Surge in citizen scientists measuring snow in 2020

National meteorology community sees big boost in membership during pandemic.

FORT COLLINS, Colo. — Rain and snow do not fall evenly across a county or a town, or even a neighborhood. So just the one or two official gauges in each town, do not really tell the whole precipitation story.

Citizen weather reporters can provide additional measurements that help climatologists fill in the data gaps between official weather stations.  

This year, more and more people are taking an interest in keeping track of the precipitation that falls at their house. A network of citizen scientists called the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow Network or CoCoRaHS has seen a big boost in membership during the pandemic.

“We just on December 26th, hit our 5-millionth report for the year,” said Noah Newman, the education coordinator for CoCoRaHS. "That's the first time we've ever reached that number of measurments."

CoCoRaHS organizes the data collected at homes, and make it available for scientists to study things like drought and climate change. The data is also available to the public and the media.

The National Weather Service said the data is critical to its meteorologists, climatologists and hydrologists.

One CoCoRaHS citizen got a special shout-out Tuesday morning after making a snowfall report from Greeley.

The network originated with the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University in 1998 thanks in part to the Fort Collins flood a year prior.  Now they have grown to include all 50 states, Canada, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Bahamas.

About 1,400 of its 20,000 active members are in Colorado, and Newman said they got a huge boost in new reporters in 2020.

“The silver lining to the pandemic has been an actual phenomenal year for CoCoRaHS. We’ve had excellent growth," said Newman. "People are at home, they’re looking for something to do, they’re looking for some way to contribute to society. And adding your rainfall measurement is something that helps out the National Weather Service.”

What it takes to be a citizen weather reporter

A membership to the nonprofit CoCoRaHS is free. All you need to do is create an account, buy an official precipitation gauge and make daily reports.

The official 4-inch diameter rain/snow gauge with the calibrated measurement tube is available on the CoCoRaHS website and is currently on sale for $33. 

For the new year, it is offering free gauges to anyone willing to report from any of the new burn scars like Grand Lake or Poudre Canyon. 

You do not have to be a permanent resident. Newman said they will gladly take your precipitation reports until the day you move. 

All they ask is that you make a report every day, preferably in the morning before evaporation can occur. If you go on vacation, no problem, just mark the days you were absent and submit the amount of water in the gauge when you get back home.

Newman said they are still looking for more members anywhere in Colorado but especially in the mountain communities and the eastern plains.  

How to take a measurement

After signing up, CoCoRaHS will have you watch a tutorial video, but here are some basics.

Most days there will not be any precipitation, but they still ask you to submit a zero for the day. You can make a report on the organization's website or smartphone app in less than one minute. 

In the warm months, measuring rainfall is just a matter of looking at the amount displayed on the gauge and submitting that number. The measurement tube is specifically calibrated to the dimensions of the catch container. So one inch of rainfall in the tube equals exactly one inch of water.

Snow does take a little bit more effort but it can be measured in less than five minutes. 

First use a ruler to measure the amount of snow accumulation in inches. You should use a 16-inch by 16-inch board painted white if you can. And keep it away from any place that snow can fall out of trees and taint your totals. 

The amount of snow in inches is important but not as important as the water in the snow. 

To figure that out, use the specially calibrated measuring tube. Fill it will some warm water, remember to write the amount down, then pour that water into the gauge and melt the snow. 

After the snow melts, pour that water back into the measuring tube and subtract the total of added warm water from the melted contents, and there you have the amount of water contained in the snow. 

Submit that to CoCoRaHS and then go shovel your sidewalk. 

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