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Weather group builds network

This simple, inexpensive device may help Ontario’s farmers finally get the weather data they need

It’s a funny thing. For something so important, there isn’t much of a system in place to measure precipitation in Ontario, or to track it or predict it. Environment Canada meteorologists are continually refining their ability to predict temperature trends over a five-day period, for example, but they aren’t able to do similar calculations for rain and snowfall with anything approaching the same accuracy.

The same can be said for measuring rain and snow levels. Part of what makes this country great also makes it difficult to collect precipitation figures in a straightforward and standardized method. Much of that challenge relates to cost efficiency. From a government perspective, it’s easier to centralize five different cities under a single weather-recording station than spend money to site a station in each centre. Environment Canada’s London weather office is an example of this, with information and forecasts for four additional outlying centres — Strathroy, St. Thomas, Woodstock and Stratford. That arrangement fails to take into consideration various microclimates, be it the region’s “Tornado Alley” between Windsor and Toronto, or Stratford and Strathroy’s locations inside of the local Snow Belt region in winter.

A volunteer observer program new to Ontario hopes to improve the quantity and quality of precipitation monitoring in the province. The Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Canada network (CoCoRaHS), launched in autumn at Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show, is seeking recruits interested in helping measure daily precipitation.

The program, administered by Chatham, Ont.-based Weather INnovations Consulting, is run entirely online through its website, including everything from observer training, entry of measurements and access to all observational data — which is made available to any and all interested. The one aspect of the program that is not technical is the measurement equipment itself. The primary unit is a simple, good-quality graduated cylinder, along with a set of specifications and guidelines that provide standard measurements and a routine that participants can follow. Are they as sophisticated as automated data-gathering centres? Not at all, says Karla Jackson, who’s in charge of client services at WIN. But they provide a benchmark, and a more standardized method of gathering precipitation data. That in itself is a step up from the simple units sold commercially at department stores and garden centres.

“And with this system, everyone’s trained, everyone’s doing the same thing, the same steps, and it’s a start in making sure the data is consistent,” says Jackson. “With these manual units, they’re less expensive, they can be anywhere, and they help fill a void where the automated stations can’t.”

The CoCoRaHS network was developed following severe flooding that struck Fort Collins, Colorado, in 1997. That effort has been building in the U.S. since the late 1990s. This latest effort to bring Canadian participants into the network simply strengthens its offerings.

At present, Jackson notes that the Ontario network has enticed participation from interested individuals as well as select conservation authorities. Province-wide agencies and groups are also being solicited to join in.

“We have a few keen volunteers already, and that’s basically come by word of mouth,” says Jackson, adding that they’re hoping to enlist interested parties to take part in a pilot project. “Right now, most people are looking at it for monitoring flood regions, but it’s also good at monitoring the drought impact on agriculture and on streams.”

The next stage of the recruitment drive includes getting farmers interested in the network. Obviously, there’s a significant benefit to enlisting the help of farmers to join the collective. More stations mean a wider, more detailed database to monitor precipitation levels which could affect on-farm management decisions.

Cost and ease

Of course, the advantages to joining the CoCoRaHS network include the cost and the convenience. The cost is $70, and there’s a short training session and some layout specifications that can vary according to where a person lives. For instance, in developed areas, the pole to which the gauge is attached must be a certain height off the ground (in rural areas, it can be positioned closer to ground level). In rural or more wide-open areas, the gauge has to be positioned a set number of feet away from surrounding trees. If there’s a hedge along one side or surrounding the property, the gauge has to be a distance roughly equal to twice the height of the trees, to reduce the effect of drifting snow in winter.

“It’s very easy. You put it in your backyard, or somewhere that you would check regularly,” says Jackson, noting that the training ensures everyone follows the same procedure for properly reading the rain gauge. “They’re all the same four-inch-diameter rain gauge, and everyone’s using the same equipment and reading it the same way, and we want to make sure that everyone is reporting in at the same time, where they’re usually reporting between 5 in the morning and 10, so that keeps it consistent and easier for getting the data out.”

The information is accessible to anyone. It isn’t necessary to participate in the network to benefit from this resource, although the more participants, the more data gathered and the greater the value. Jackson adds that winter is the time for farmer meetings and workshops, so getting the word out to the agri-food sector is about to take on greater urgency.

“Right now, we’re just trying to get more support sponsored in Ontario,” she says. “And in the next few weeks, we’re going to be promoting it actively among agricultural groups. But the primary interest at this point has been from a water management perspective — namely the conservation authorities.”

For details on joining the CoCoRaHS network, visit the CoCoRaHS Canada website. You’ll find more information on this resource, including frequently asked questions, guidelines and costs.

This article first appeared in the 2014 Corn Guide

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