WERA1012: Managing and Utilizing Precipitation Observations from Volunteer Networks

(Multistate Research Coordinating Committee and Information Exchange Group)

Status: Active

WERA1012: Managing and Utilizing Precipitation Observations from Volunteer Networks

Duration: 10/01/2013 to 09/30/2018

Administrative Advisor(s):

NIFA Reps:

Statement of Issues and Justification

Recent widespread and high impact drought in the U.S. along with a number of extreme flood events (e.g. the Missouri River Basin and Lower Mississippi in 2011, Hurricane Irene in 2011, Red River of the North in 2010 and many other examples) demonstrate, yet again, the incredible impact caused by variability and extremes in precipitation. Precipitation (rain, hail and snow) is one of the most important and most variable components of the climate system. To prepare and adapt to this variability, scientists, planners, managers and educators in many disciplines rely on and expect easy access to current and historic precipitation data. Examples of users and applications of precipitation data include agricultural production and marketing; water utilities managing the collection and distribution of ground and surface water for municipal and industrial uses; irrigation districts who distribute large volumes of water for agricultural production: storm water managers and flood plain administrators who help protect society from the catastrophic impacts caused by flooding; engineers and contractors who use available precipitation data to size, design and build bridges, culverts, roofs, drains, sewers, etc. to safely handle the vast majority of precipitation events; and insurance programs that require accurate precipitation data to determine where and when claims should be filed and payments made.

Climate monitoring has traditionally been a Federal responsibility. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), working through local and regional National Weather Service offices, has been responsible for the collection of precipitation data for the country back to the 19th Century. While the need for timely, accurate, site-specific precipitation data continues to grow, Federal budgets for climate observations have been flat or are shrinking. Maintaining nationwide observing networks is difficult and expensive. Technology is helpful but insufficient to address these needs. Gauges that automatically measure all forms of precipitation over all ranges of climatic conditions are expensive, require maintenance and are not always reliable. Evidence of the funding challenges became apparent in 2012, as funding for a NOAA network of high quality automated precipitation gauges in the U.S. (the Regional Climate Reference Network (R-CRN) was terminated. Remote sensing of precipitation (from satellite or from ground based radar systems) continues to grow in importance but does not overcome the need for surface observations since these technologies still rely on traditional gauge measurements at many locations to provide ground truth and calibration.

The need for ongoing precipitation measurements from many locations and over many years is obvious. But how to accomplish that with limited resources remains a challenge. One approach has been the National Weather Services Cooperative Observer Program with over 120 years of continuous nationwide temperature and precipitation measurements (including critical observations of snowfall and snow depth) from primarily volunteer observing sites across the country (on average, one or two per county). This is a truly remarkable national treasure of climate information and the only national network suitable for assessing regional climate patterns, interannual variability, drought and flood frequencies, and long-term trends both locally and nationally. Unfortunately, recent attempts to add resources to strengthen and modernize this network have been largely unsuccessful and efforts to downsize this network are currently underway.

In the past decade, a complementary program to the NWS Cooperative Program known as the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow (CoCoRaHS) network was initiated by Colorado State University. It has demonstrated that even in the 21st Century there is an important place and function for manual, backyard volunteer precipitation measurements. Not only are the plastic rain gauges used by CoCoRaHS accurate and inexpensive, but participants also learn a great deal about weather, climate and hydrology through their ongoing participation.

The initial WERA1012 Coordinating Committee (1998-2013) provided an incredibly valuable opportunity to exchange information and expertise among University, Federal, state and local agencies involved in collecting or utilizing precipitation data from volunteer networks. The need continues and the interest in public participation in scientific research and data collection appears to be growing. We must learn how to grow, sustain and effectively manage networks of volunteers in todays society and leverage ever-changing communications technologies to improve the collection, analysis and dissemination of this much-needed precipitation information. This coordinating committee will address these needs and opportunities.


  1. Promote volunteer precipitation observations as a cost effective approach to monitoring a highly variable and critically important element of our climate
  2. Develop and coordinate protocols for volunteer precipitation measurements that meet state, regional, national and international needs
  3. Improve data quality from volunteer networks through program leadership, training resources and QA/QC methods
  4. Improve climate monitoring capabilities and applications through supplementing existing observing networks
  5. Educate scientists and climate data users on the value and applications of high density precipitation observations

Procedures and Activities

In support of each of the five objectives above, the following activities will be undertaken individually and as a committee.

1) Promote volunteer precipitation observations as a cost-effective approach to monitoring this highly variable and critically important element of our climate: a) Support the NWS Cooperative Observer Network as the baseline long-term climate (temperature and precipitation) observing system for the nation; b) Help organize and conduct a nationwide celebration of the 125th anniversary of the Cooperative Observer network; c) Develop training and outreach programs that could be delivered as webinars or other electronic media to showcase the use and value of climate data collected by volunteer networks; d) Through shared experiences and collective expertise, identify and expand the communication and collaborations that best build and maintain a community of weather volunteers motivated to accurately measure and report precipitation.

2) Develop and coordinate protocols for volunteer precipitation measurements that meet state, regional, national and international needs: a) Review current NWS and CoCoRaHS protocols for volunteer measurement of rain, hail and snow and compare to standards established by the World Meteorological Organization. Where possible, identify differences and determine if this is impacting data quality and/or usability. Recommend changes as needed; b) Investigate current protocols for measuring and reporting freezing rain and establish best practices; c) Establish best practices for measuring and reporting precipitation extremes such as rainfall in excess of 5 per day, snowfall in excess of 12 inches per day and total snow depth and water content for deep snowpack of 18 or greater.

3) Improve data quality from volunteer networks through program leadership, training resources and QA/QC methods: a) Assemble and review traditional practices in quality assurance, quality control and data editing; b) Assess opportunities for improvements including greater use of automation; c) Identify opportunities for improving training methods and resources to improve the quality of data collected by volunteers.

4) Improve precipitation monitoring capabilities and applications by supplementing existing observing networks: a) Explore new opportunities to integrate volunteer precipitation data with new and existing data sources and information products such as precipitation estimates from remote sensing; b) Increase observational resolution through greater participation in volunteer precipitation observing. Develop and implement generalized and targeted recruiting efforts; c) Explore opportunities for partnering with science and education programs such as science and technology centers to recruit new volunteers and to pursue opportunities to engage minority populations and underserved groups; d) Seek to achieve adequate funding levels to support infrastructure requirements (cyber and human resources) for volunteer observing networks.

5. Educate scientists and climate data users on the value and applications of high density precipitation observations: a) Assemble examples of current uses of high-resolution volunteer precipitation data in research, operations and education; b) Encourage committee members and colleagues to emphasize the role of volunteer observations in their research, service and outreach; c) Compile information on precipitation gauge performance, biases, and limitations, and assemble into a form that can be shared (websites, publications, bibliographies, etc.).

The actions of this committee will help to increase professional awareness in the past, current and future role of volunteer observing networks in supporting weather, climate and water resources monitoring, research, education and operations. These efforts strive toward long-lived, cost-effective volunteer precipitation data collection that welcomes and encourages citizens of all ages and backgrounds to get involved. This is not meant to replace existing automated networks but will supplement and complement them and, in some areas, provide higher spatial detail than any existing regional or national observing network.

This committee and the organizations represented here will provide an unbiased multi-level advisory structure for volunteer precipitation observing networks with the goal of achieving and maintaining high quality, timely and accessible precipitation data to serve many known and potential future needs. This effort will help instill greater confidence in volunteer-collected data among scientists, educators and decision-makers. Data from volunteer precipitation networks will provide much-needed information at the neighborhood (sub-county) scale to support forecasters and local emergency managers in documenting floods, winter storms and severe thunderstorms. This type of information will assist flood plain managers and water providers as they assess available water supplies and weather-affected water demand. Precipitation data from volunteer networks will continue to help improve remote sensing applications by providing detailed ground truth for calibrating radar and satellite products. This will also help national efforts such as the National Integrated Drought Information Systems early warning efforts and the U.S. Drought Monitor. Several programs of the U.S. Farm Bill administered by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and Federal Crop Insurance Programs administered by the Risk Management Agency may benefit directly from improved local precipitation monitoring.

Finally, volunteer measurements of rain, hail and snow are not just a source of data to scientists and practitioners, but also an inroad into applied science and science discovery for people of all ages with an interest in their natural world.

Expected Outcomes and Impacts

  • Continued support for the National Weather Service Cooperative Network and supplemental volunteer networks such as the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow network (CoCoRaHS).
  • Increased national awareness and appreciation for the role that volunteer networks have and will play in climate monitoring and research.
  • Greater citizen participation in precipitation measurements.
  • Additional precipitation-related data collection such as quantitative measurements of ice accretion from freezing rain, more winter measurements of snow water content, and better measurement of precipitation from exceptionally large and extreme events.
  • Better data quality and easier data accessibility for users.
  • Outcome/Impact 6 Potential involvement in NASAs Global Precipitation Mission. Outcome/Impact 7 A healthy, unbiased environment for exchanging ideas and for trying new things with the goal of improving the measurement of precipitation at a low cost. Outcome/Impact 8 Overall, we hope to increase the availability of high quality precipitation data to meet a wide variety of known and potential future research, operations and educational needs.

Projected Participation

View Appendix E: Participation

Educational Plan

We will continue to build off of our current outreach and engagement activities that were recognized in 2012 when CoCoRaHS was selected as a finalist for the C. Peter Magrath University/Community Engagement Award at the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities (APLU) 2012 Annual meeting. The video created for this competition http://vimeo.com/54894007 will be utilized to help promote volunteer opportunities nationwide.

Education and outreach come naturally to this group. People accustomed to working with volunteers tend to be natural educators. The membership of this committee already includes several who are associated with or who work directly with university Extension programs. There will also be focused education efforts. The 125th anniversary of the National Weather Service Cooperative Network offers an incredible opportunity to draw attention to the history, importance and applications of data collection by volunteers. The planned webinar or series of webinars will provide a forum for featuring data collection, analysis, applications and historic perspectives. The committee will discuss when and how to promote these webinars. Continued efforts to improve training materials for weather observers will be explored in collaboration with the National Weather Service Training Center. CoCoRaHS will plan to develop, test and improve new training materials for volunteers when needed.

Other opportunities: 1) The Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow network webpage http://www.cocorahs.org, 2) The CoCoRaHS Google-groups for improving communications among network volunteer leaders, 3) Presentations at scientific and extension conferences, 4) A potential national conference in conjunction with the NWS Cooperative Programs 125th anniversary, 5) Leveraging the rapid development of Citizen Science as a field of study including opportunities for partnering with television producers interested in featuring volunteer science opportunities, and collaboration with the now-forming professional organizations focusing on public participation in scientific research.


We plan to use a very simple governance structure of a chair and chair-elect. The chair will be responsible for the meeting agenda and chair-elect will handle the annual report. Each year, the chair-elect will become chair and a new chair-elect selected by the committee. A final governance structure will be adopted at the first meeting. Both the chair and chair elect will communicate with the Administrative Advisor assigned to this group.

Literature Cited

CoCoRaHS Weatherwise and WMO articles.

Doesken, N., 2001: Rain gauges, are they really ground truth, COMET Webcast [Available at http://meted.ucar.edu/qpf/rgauge/ ]

DeMouche, L., D. Bathke, and N. Doesken, 2007: Master Gardeners Role in encouraging water conservation using a rain gauge network. Journal of Extension, Vol. 45 4(August), 4IAW5.

Petersen, Walter A., Lawrence D. Carey, Steven A. Rutledge, Jason C. Knievel, Nolan J. Doesken, Richard H. Johnson, Thomas B. McKee, Thomas Vonder Haar, and John F. Weaver, 1999: Mesoscale and radar observations of the Fort Collins flash flood of 28 July 1997. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 80, 2(February), pp. 191-216.

Cifelli, R., N. Doesken, P. Kennedy, L.D. Carey, S.A. Rutledge, C. Gimmestad and T. Depue, 2005: The Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow Network: Informal education for scientists and citizens. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., Vol. 86, 8(Aug), 1069-1077.

National Research Council (NRC), 1998: Future of the National Weather Service Cooperative Observer Network. National Academy Press, Washington, DC, 65 pp.
Neff, Earl L., 1977: How much rain does a rain gage gage? Journal of Hydrology, 35, pp. 213-220.


Land Grant Participating States/Institutions


Non Land Grant Participating States/Institutions

Florida State University, NOAA, Oregon State University, South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, University of New Hampshire
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