Portable weather stations to fill data gaps

Weather information can now be gathered even in remote areas. (Mohamed Abdiwahab, AFP)

Weather information can now be gathered even in remote areas. (Mohamed Abdiwahab, AFP)

You could call it a weather station in a suitcase, and it may help fill a major data gap that’s plagued forecasters and climatologists for years.

Using off-the-shelf electronics and some plastic parts made on a 3D printer, researchers at the National Weather Service’s International Activities Office in Silver Spring, Maryland, have come up with a way to put weather stations in pretty much any place in the world.

“We aren’t claiming they are going to rival commercial versions for accuracy, but they will be in the ballpark, and it will be a huge step forward for data collection,” Martin Steinson, the project manager for the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, said this week.

The station can be assembled for about $200 from a Raspberry Pi (a credit-card sized computer for hobbyists), sensors, wires and plastic parts built on a 3D printer. The goal was to have the entire station created out of easily available parts so that maintenance and construction costs would be low. A commercial station can cost $10 000.

The small kits may solve a big problem that has plagued weather forecasters and climate modellers – a lack of reliable data from a large part of the developing world.

The first place researchers want to have these stations installed is Africa.

“Africa is a huge data desert largely because the cost of commercial quality weather stations is so high and the maintenance requirements are beyond the budgets of the weather services out there,” said Steinson.

Reliable data
This means that for a forecaster on the ground in Africa, predicting the weather isn’t easy.
Using the kits, forecasters will have reliable temperature, humidity, air pressure, wind speed and precipitation data from wherever the stations are built. The data can then be transmitted back to a central office or collected from data cards.

Steinson said his colleague, Kelly Sponberg, came up with the idea a few years ago and it was funded by the United States Agency for International Development. The plan is to start installing them in Zambia in August or September.

Although the stations will improve forecasting on the ground, they may also help weather and climate models the world over. On-the-ground information is often superior to that gathered by a satellite, so having a set of accurate measurements would boost the quality of the models. One of the main problems researchers often face in trying to compile global temperatures is limited consistent and catalogued data from Africa.

In addition, for people living in North America, what goes on in Africa can play big role in how many hurricanes emerge out of the Atlantic and eastern Pacific.

Storms across the continent often become the seeds of hurricanes once they hit the open waters of the Atlantic, and the amount of humidity can influence if and how the powerful tempests form.

And, who knows, in a few years, we could all have our own weather station to cart around . Then we can blame ourselves when the forecast for sunshine is spoiled by thunderstorms. – Bloomberg

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