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Will it snow?

Volunteer research by these farmers is helping to advance weather science

As farmers are well aware, rain and snowfall can vary considerably over short distances. What farmer hasn’t suffered a dry spell when promising rain clouds drifted north or south of their farm, giving their neighbours a crop-saving “million-dollar” rain?

Likewise, we’ve all seen very small pockets get clobbered with gully-producing storms or crop-flattening hail.

The old saw says “the rain doesn’t fall the same on all.” If anything, it feels like an understatement.

With so much variability, the more observations or data points that can be used for models that predict droughts or floods, the more accurate they will be.

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This is the basis of the CoCoRaHS program which relies on a community of voluntary observers to track precipitation events. CoCoRaHS stands for Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network. Members of all ages and backgrounds work together to accurately measure and map precipitation across Canada.

Not surprisingly, farmers are some of the keenest members of CoCoRaHS, says Tiffiny Taylor, provincial co-ordinator of CoCoRaHS Manitoba where 367 members are signed up. Farmers are already very interested in the weather and are already tracking it, she says.

“We make our living farming and weather is likely the largest influencer of our work flow and income,” states Wawanesa, Man. farmer, Jeff Elder, who has participated in CoCoRaHS since January 2015. Elder likes contributing to a network of weather observers and being able to see a historical record of his own observations.

The maps are used not only by farmers, but also by meteorologists, researchers, water resources engineers, and emergency managers, who use them for jobs as varied as calibrating weather forecasting models, doing climate change research, predicting the spread of pest infestations, determining snow load building design standards, and planning watershed management, to name a few examples.

Local TV stations also use the information, says Taylor. They add it to their forecasts or weather news, she says.

The results, which show how hyperlocal our rain events can be, are used every single day, says Taylor. “Lives are saved, damages are reduced.”

Measuring and reporting rainfall events is easy, says Elder, who enters the information directly into his smartphone every day using an app. Reporting snowfall events, which requires weighing or melting the snow to get the rainfall equivalent, is more time-consuming.

Recording the precipitation on a daily basis is a long-standing habit for Strasbourg, Sask. farmer Gordon Gwillim. “I have been measuring rain and snow for farm purposes since 1963,” he says.

Gwillim, one of 173 CoCoRaHs members in Sask­atchewan, says every morning he is out the door by 7 a.m. to check the weather and peek into the precipitation gauge. Reporting can be done in metric or imperial measurements.

During precipitation events, measurements made by volunteers are plotted each morning on a colour-coded map which gives interested parties a quick overview of where the precipitation occurred. “I am one of those interested parties,” says Gwillim.

Participants are able to view the data on an interactive map on the group’s website. There, they can compare how much rain they got against precipation recorded on neighbouring farms.

Dave Bartle who lives north of Cochrane, Alta., had been making monthly measurements of the water level in his well through a program with his local municipality when he learned about the CoCoRaHS project. Curious about the relationship between precipitation and groundwater levels, he’s been a CoCoRaHS observer since the summer of 2016.

“Environment Canada has weather stations in Calgary but they are so far away from us they are almost irrelevant for local knowledge,” says Bartle, who encourages other landowners to get involved in the CoCoRaHS program. It’s simple to do and there are many areas, especially in Alberta, where no one is reporting the precipitation, he says.

The program is new to Alberta where there are just 77 observers so far, explains Taylor.

“The internet has given us a unique easy access point to participate, which makes it really effortless,” continues Bartle, who also participates in a radon survey through another community research program.

The use of low-cost standardized rain gauges, participant training, and timely reporting are some of the CoCoRaHS program strengths. The rain gauge can be purchased online through the organization for less than $50. There is no other cost to participate. Training is provided through online videos.

If observers need to be away, that’s not a problem, says Taylor. “We just ask them to do their best.”

Gwillim says his wife, Peggy, takes the readings and keeps up with what’s happening at CoCoRaHS when he’s not home. You can also submit multi-day readings if you’ve been away, says Taylor.

CoCoRaHS first began in Fort Collins, Colorado, in 1998 following an intense storm that caused $200 million in flood damage. Using data obtained from local residents, meteorologists were able to determine the rainfall varied from two inches to more than 14 inches across the region, thus demonstrating the need for more localized data.

In the more than 20 years since CoCoRaHS began, it has been embraced by the public and has spread to every state in the U.S. Severe flooding in Manitoba and Saskatchewan in 2011 was the impetus for bringing the CoCoRaHS program to Canada. It’s now operating across this country although there is a greater density of volunteer observers in some provinces than others.

“We’re always looking for more participants,” says Taylor. “The more data we receive the better the picture we can put together ahead of floods and droughts,” she says. “We can’t control the weather but we can mitigate it with a warning.”

The program literature says: “Everyone can help, young, old, and in-between… The only requirements are an enthusiasm for watching and reporting weather conditions and a desire to learn more about how weather can affect and impact our lives.”

Students and 4-H club members are also gaining a better understanding of the weather and its impacts as CoCoRaHS weather observers.

All of them, the organization says, get a boost from knowing that their contributions are helping to advance weather science and weather preparedness.

The “Community Collaborative” in the name says it all, agrees Bartle. “I think that any research program that involves the community can only be a benefit to all. We all participate; we all gain from the knowledge.”

Gwillim encourages anyone, especially in rural areas, who has an interest in an outdoor activity that is vitally important to the community to find out more about CoCoRaHS. “We need more people measuring rain and especially snowfall,” he says.

Resources

For more information on the Canadian arm of CoCoRaHS or to sign up, go to the CoCoRaHS website.

In addition to CoCoRaHS, there are community monitoring programs for frogs, milkweed, butterflies, earthworms, bats and birds. Go to the Government of Canada’s Citizen Science Portal to see all the projects there.

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