Volunteers needed to help severe storm scientists

Local storms to be monitored in July and August

Scientists love data, and state climatologist Nolan Doesken is no exception. So in his quest to understand Colorado’s ever-changing weather, getting new data from places around the state is paramount and his sights are set on the Gunnison Valley.



At a meeting Monday, April 27, the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District board heard about one way Doesken hopes to use local volunteers to help him collect precipitation data by taking daily readings from rain gauges in their own backyards.
The data, he says, will be compared to information collected by scientists who are coming to Gunnison County from the National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) in Norman, Okla. during July and August.
The scientists will be bringing a research radar with them that will be able to approximate the amount of rain falling in certain areas of the county, but they are hoping to corroborate their information with people checking rain gauges on the ground.
“If we can put the two together we hope to learn quite a bit from that,” he said.
Doesken told the board that local volunteers wanting to collaborate with the NSSL team could join CoCoRaHS, or the Community Collaborative Rain Hail and Snow Network, which is a national program that collects and organizes data from more than 1,500 gauges across the state.
     The CoCoRaHS program got its start in Colorado in 1998 after a downpour dropped more than 14 inches of rain in Fort Collins, causing a wall of water 10 to 20 feet high to surge down Spring Creek toward the campus of Colorado State University.
Doesken said that while he was collecting data on the event in Fort Collins, more data on the amount of rain falling would have allowed for a better prediction of the severity of the storm and perhaps more advanced warning that a flash flood was coming.
“Five people died in that storm and I’ve always felt a kind of guilty. I wish we could have done more,” said Doesken.
Since then more than 70 people in Fort Collins have signed onto as CoCoRaHS volunteers, providing accurate daily data on precipitation.
Doesken told the board, “You know how one part of town it can rain a half-inch of rain and in another part of town it can rain 5 hundredths of an inch. Understanding those patterns is important in helping us to understand the nature of storms as they pass over the county.”
 But there aren’t any gauges in Gunnison County. In fact, he said, other than the monitoring taking place at the airport there is no general weather data being collected in Gunnison county east of Blue Mesa Reservoir.
“Your area is just not covered under the umbrella of the Grand Junction Weather Service radar. You’re pretty much in a total void. Weather radar has never covered your area,” he said.
And while the system of gauges may never be used to prevent a calamity, they can help officials and individuals understand the weather systems that move over the area.    
Crested Butte, Doesken says, has been involved in weather monitoring for more than a century, which provides good historical data, but only for one data point. Having volunteers spread throughout the valley can provide a more complete picture of the area’s weather.
Although Doesken is urgently looking for volunteers to collect data during July and August, the program is operational all year and people who catch “the CoCoRaHS bug” are encouraged to continue providing data.
For more information on CoCoRaHS, or to sign up as a volunteer, visit cocorahs.org.

Another tool Doesken told the board he is hoping to put to use in the Gunnison Valley is the CoAgMet – Colorado Agricultural Meteorological network – station, which measures evapotranspiration, or the amount of water being lost to evaporation and plant function.
The stations record temperature and relative humidity, wind direction and speed, solar radiation, precipitation and soil temperature. The data that is collected is sent via phone line or cell phone signal as often as every 10 seconds to a computer that distributes the information to anyone that is interested.
A range of people use the service, from farmers and ranchers to scientists and water managers.
“The three main things that happen to your water is you get some in the form of precipitation, you send some down the river and you send a whole lot right back up to the air. This is a way of measuring, to some extent, the portion that is being sent into the air, which is the part of the hydrological system that has been most ignored,” said Doesken.
But while the service is for the most part free, the station comes at a cost of $8,000 for the hardware and installation. There is also a $2,000 annual maintenance and calibration cost that the district would have to pick up.
For that kind of investment local rancher and board member Ken Spann said he would like to see something more or different than the information being gathered by other evapotranspiration measuring devices already in place on local ranches.
“How will the data we get from this device supplement the information that we’ve already achieved in these meadows from very detailed lysimeter reports?” asked Spann.
A lysimeter measures evapotranspiration released by plants or crops.
Doesken said he would like the opportunity to put a station in the same location as a lysimeter had been, so data could be compared directly.
“What it would allow you to do, based on what was learned in the past, you would then be able to monitor how evapotranspiration is varying month to month, season to season as we move forward in time,” said Doesken.
He said that in places where every little bit of water is accounted for, the stations allow ranchers and farmers to improve the efficiency of their irrigation scheduling and in understanding their crop water use.  
“So it’s less of a decision tool here than it is a monitoring of the variability of a resource you have,” he said.
“My sense is that if we do it, we should do it at a comparable location to where it was done before, so that there is some correlation,” said Spann. “I would be interested in pursuing it if it was really and truly something that would supplement the information that we already have. It sounds like it would but I guess I’m not convinced.”
The board voted to have the project committee look at the proposed stations in more detail. If they decide to go ahead with the installation, Doesken said they could have a station in place and online in about two months.

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