CHISHOLM, Minn. — Christine Olson begins each day as a volunteer weather observer for the CoCoRaHS Network.
"It really is meaningful," Olson told the Mesabi Daily News , as she showed on a recent evening how she collects snowfall data each morning from a gage in her backyard.
Citizen scientists such as Olson contribute to a better understanding and more accurate measure of precipitation to assist meteorologists, hydrologists, emergency managers, insurance adjusters, engineers, farmers and many others through their daily snow and rainfall readings.
But the elementary students in Chisholm, where Olson teaches first through third grade special education, simply think it's pretty cool that when they hear on the news the amount of rain or snow that fell in Chisholm on a particular day — "that number came from my backyard."
Anyone can become a volunteer weather observer with the CoCoRaHS — Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network.
It is a nationwide "community project," and the only requirements, according to the network, are "an enthusiasm for watching and reporting weather conditions and a desire to learn more about how weather can affect and impact our lives."
Participants of all ages simply sign up on the program's website, purchase an inexpensive rain gage (roughly $30), complete online training via videos and slide shows, and are set to go, said Steve Gohde, observing program team leader with the National Weather Service of Duluth and the regional CoCoRaHS Northland and Arrowhead volunteer coordinator.
For Olson, the role is a perfect fit.
"Ever since I was a little girl, I've been fascinated with weather" — especially storms, she said. In fact, seeing a tornado one day is "on my bucket list."
Olson initially began volunteering as a severe storm spotter for SKYWARN, a National Weather Service program.
Through that connection, she learned of CoCoRaHS. The program began as a grassroots effort in Colorado in 1998 and has grown into network of thousands of volunteers in the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation, CoCoRaHS "fills in the gaps of data holes," Gohde said.
There are currently 70 CoCoRaHS observers in the Northland, but the area could benefit from many more, he said.
When meteorologists "see something on the radar, we can collaborate the information," Olson said. "We can tell them if it's actually happening. They rely on us."
Reports from CoCoRaHS volunteers are logged on the program's map, and participants, according to the network, "provide a great service" to their community by allowing "friends, neighbors, scientists and others to see how daily precipitation has covered the state."
"I report every morning as close to 7 a.m. as I can," said Olson, who logged her first CoCoRaHS readings on April 28, 2012. Volunteers are asked to take measurements at about the same time each day. Olson has since contributed more than 1,887 reports.
Precipitation in the form of rain is the easiest to collect, she said. Readings are taken directly from the gage to the nearest 100th of an inch.
Tracking the moisture content of frozen precipitation takes a bit more work. Olson must pour hot water into the cylinder to melt the snow, then employ simple mathematics to "compensate for the displacement," she explained.
Olson also uses a measuring stick to take two other snowfall readings — one directly from a spot on the lawn in her backyard and the other from atop a "snowboard." The piece of wood is painted white to prevent it from absorbing heat.
Sometimes measurements are too minimal to measure, and they are entered as a "trace" amount. "Zero is OK" to report, Olson said. And if conditions are windy, resulting in inaccurate readings, Olson can make note of that in a comment section on the report.
Some CoCoRaHS observers also use "hail pads" to measure indents of the frozen precipitation. Olson said she typically doesn't report on hail since the area doesn't have that many hail storms.
"They do study the info we provide" to gain more knowledge of climate patterns, she said. "The moisture content of the snow can predict what kind of spring we will have."
And occasionally, Olson receives special calls from the weather service to provide observations.
Being a "weather nerd" may be a good reason to volunteer with CoCoRaHS, but "it really is fun," she said. "It's a way to contribute."
"We try to encourage people to become citizen scientists and to help by providing rain and snowfall readings," Gohde said.
It's a great "job" for any weather enthusiast, Olson said. The more people who volunteer, "the more data they collect and the bigger picture we get."
An AP Member Exchange shared by the Mesabi Daily News.