Have you ever stared at your weather app in frustration because it’s showing current weather for somewhere dozens of miles from where you live? You’re not alone. Most of us live pretty far from official weather observing stations, which are usually located at airports or National Weather Service offices scattered around the country. Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to become an amateur scientist using the smartphone in your pocket or dedicating a tiny part of your yard to science.
1. REPORT WHAT’S HAPPENING TO METEOROLOGISTS.
Weather radar is arguably the best piece of technology we have to predict bad storms, but even this advanced life-saving equipment has its limitations. The greatest restraint is that radar can’t see what precipitation reaches the ground. That’s because a radar dish sends out a beam of energy on a slight angle, and combined with the curvature of the earth, the beam climbs higher off the ground the farther away from the dish it travels.
Since the radar can only see what’s happening a few thousand feet above our heads, mPing is an app that lets you help meteorologists “see” what kind of weather is actually reaching the ground. This free app, available for Apple and Android, lets you use your phone’s location feature to report current conditions to meteorologists in real time. If it starts snowing, filing a report with your mPing app will tell meteorologists when snow showing up on the radar is actually reaching the streets. Alerting them if snow changes to freezing rain will help others by allowing scientists to adjust warnings and forecasts accordingly. You can even report tornadoes, hail, and wind damage.
One little app can let you help advance the science of meteorology, and your reports many even help save lives during a severe weather event.
2. BECOME PART OF A NETWORK OF CITIZEN-RUN WEATHER STATIONS.
Having official weather reporting stations spaced out by dozens of miles across the country is fine for tracking temperature trends or overall wind patterns, but it’s not very useful when you want to keep track of heavy rain or heavy snow. Precipitation is extremely localized—we’ve all seen one of those thunderstorms where it’s raining down the street but bone dry where you’re standing. It helps to have lots of high-quality measuring stations to track storms like that.
That's where CoCoRaHS comes in. Short for Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow Network, CoCoRaHS is a network of thousands of citizen-run weather observing stations across the United States, Canada, and the Bahamas. Participants in the CoCoRaHS network use official rain gauges and snow rulers to measure precipitation right in their backyard. These gauges are immensely helpful for meteorologists trying to figure out how much snow fell in a certain town or how much rain has fallen over certain areas—a crucial factor in determining how prone an area is to flash flooding in future storms.
Participating in CoCoRaHS isn’t free—you have to purchase an official rain gauge, which costs about $30—but it’s worth it if you’re dedicated to keeping track of the weather for yourself and your neighbors.
3. SET UP A PERSONAL WEATHER STATION.
If you’re really interested in the weather, you can go one step further and purchase your own personal weather station to set up on your property. Most decent personal weather stations go for about $100 and can measure temperature, dew point, wind speed and direction, and automatically measure rainfall. Some personal weather stations allow you to upload the data to the internet in real-time, which is immensely helpful for networks run by organizations like Wunderground and Weatherbug.
The only catch is that you have to have a yard large enough to properly site a weather station. If the station is too close to a building, trees, or fencing, the obstructions will interfere with your measurements and the data won’t be accurate.
4. VOLUNTEER WITH SKYWARN.
If you’ve ever heard reports of severe weather on the news talking about a “trained spotter,” they’re talking about one of the hundreds of thousands of volunteers who have participated in official storm spotter training. SKYWARN is the official weather spotter training program run by the National Weather Service (NWS). The program is a short, free course run by local NWS offices several times every year. It teaches you the basics of spotting severe and hazardous weather, and properly reporting that weather back to the NWS.
SKYWARN spotters are a critical part of the early warning system in the United States. Accurate reports of tornadoes, damaging winds, hail, and flooding sent to the NWS by trained storm spotters have helped meteorologists issue severe weather warnings with enough time to save lives. The program is worth it even if you don’t plan to go out chasing storms on the Plains—severe weather can happen anywhere, and knowing the difference between a harmless cloud and a lethal tornado could save someone’s life.
If you want to participate in SKYWARN training, keep an eye out for announcements from your local NWS office for training days. You can also participate in free online SKYWARN training through the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, which runs a treasure trove of online learning modules for everyone from weather enthusiasts to meteorologists brushing up on advanced topics.