There’s a dirty little secret behind your local TV weather reports: unless you live near an airport, they aren’t talking about you. Official weather stations are tens or hundreds of kilometers apart. A lot of weather can happen in those gaps so professional forecasters rely on observations from thousands of amateur weather watchers.
Get your personal weather
These amateurs aren’t standing in the rain with measuring cups and thermometers. They use personal weather stations that automatically record weather data. A basic system will measure temperature and windspeed for about $50 while an advanced system that measures dozens of variables retails for more than $1000.
That data travels over cables or WiFi to the amateur’s personal computer where software produces weather dashboards and historical reports. Popular with weather enthusiasts and schools, these systems let you explore the local weather. But a personal weather station also lets you help professional meteorologists.
Why is the weather man always wrong?
Meteorological agencies like the United States’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration rely on high-tech weather stations to collect measurements of weather conditions. These weather stations measure cloud conditions, the type and intensity of precipitation, and other conditions with greater accuracy and precision than anything you could buy for your home.
Unfortunately, building and operating these stations is so expensive that the weather agencies can’t afford to build a lot of them. Noaa’s Automated Surface Observation System has less than 1,000 stations spread across America’s 9,800,000 square kilometers. If spread evenly across the country, each one would sit in the middle of an empty area the size of Switzerland. Instead Noaa, like other weather agencies, concentrates the stations where they will do the most good - at airports.
That’s good for aviation safety, but it doesn’t solve the geographical problem: airports may be separated by tens or hundreds of kilometers - and weather happens on a much finer scale. That’s why official weather reports may say that it’s sunny and dry as you stand in the pouring rain.
Spotting weather for the pros
Fortunately, meteorologists can tap into the thousands of personal weather stations gathering data. The weather software you install on your computer lets you contribute your personal weather station data to a number of amateur weather networks.
Noaa originally created the Citizen Weather Observing Program to collect weather data from the amateur radio community. Thanks to Internet-connected weather stations, the CWOP has grown to over 6,000 volunteers in North America plus another several thousand around the world. CWOP consolidates 40,000-70,000 observations every hour to submit to Noaa’s weather databases. When a TV weather report mentions local rainfall and temperatures, those numbers often come from the CWOP’s contributors.
The Weather Observations Website, created by Great Britain’s MetOffice collects personal weather station data from more than 3,300 locations in 170 countries. Both the MetOffice and the Royal Meteorological Society use Wow data in its educational programs. For example, a lesson at the RMS’ MetLink site asks students to decide whether a sporting event can take place based on weather data from Wow.
Commercial weather companies also depend on data from amateur weather observers. The Weather Underground, a subsidiary of The Weather Channel, collects data from over 32,000 volunteers worldwide for its PWS Network. In operation since 2001, Weather Underground’s meteorologists use the data to produce more accurate weather forecasts distributed online and through its smartphone apps.