Weather observations are the backbone of understanding the climate system.  The earliest modern weather observations in the United States were taken by surgeons in the forts scattered around the country.  Later in the 1800’s, volunteer observers worked for the Smithsonian to collect weather measurements.  Now, there are many different types of weather and climate observations made, from a variety of platforms including satellites, radar, automated weather networks, and even ships and airplanes.  All of them have various degrees of accuracy but all are useful for helping to run forecast models as well as monitor current conditions for hazardous weather.

With the recent snowstorms that have plagued parts of the eastern US, there have been several articles which describe the work of the National Weather Service cooperative observers, who take official measurements of temperature and precipitation around the country.  You can read one article about the coop observers and what they have to do to get accurate snow measurements at Government Executive here.

NOAA also produced an article discussing a new observations database called MADIS which will ingest data from more than 64,000 sources, including not only traditional weather observers but also road sensors, university networks, government soil sensors and other sources to provide a much more complete picture of the weather and climate than has been seen in the past.  It’s not an easy job to put all of those sources together, because each has its own format and quality level.  A description of the MADIS system and the data it contains can be found here.

Source: NOAA
MADIS sources of weather observations.  Source: NOAA

If you are interested in participating as a volunteer observer, here are some sites that need your help:

  • CoCoRaHS: Every drop counts! Learn how to measure precipitation using a rain gauge and hail pad, record your data and report your measurements online. Data collected by volunteers complements observations made by the National Weather Service and is used by local meteorologists, researchers, emergency managers, farmers, outdoor enthusiasts, teachers and others.
  • IceWatch USA: Help scientists study climate change by sharing your winter observations of a water body, including the presence of snow, ice and wildlife throughout the season. The data you collect may be shared with scientists, research institutions and government agencies who are studying how climate change affects our environment.
  • Nature’s Notebook: Observe nature in your backyard or a nearby area for a few minutes each week and share your data. You can choose a specific plant or animal species to observe or join one of Nature’s Notebook’s campaigns. Researchers, resource managers, educators and others use your data for scientific discovery and decision-making.
  • Old Weather: Help scientists recover weather observations made by U.S. ships since the mid-19th Century by transcribing the ship logs. The observations you transcribe help scientists improve our understanding of past weather and environmental conditions, and can also contribute to climate model projections. Historians also use the data to track ship movements of the past and document stories of the ships’ passengers.