WERA1012: Managing and Utilizing Precipitation Observations from Volunteer Networks (from WDC43)

(Multistate Research Coordinating Committee and Information Exchange Group)

Status: Active

WERA1012: Managing and Utilizing Precipitation Observations from Volunteer Networks (from WDC43)

Duration: 10/01/2019 to 09/30/2024

Administrative Advisor(s):

NIFA Reps:

Non-Technical Summary

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.

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. There are over 20,000 stations currently in the network  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. Increase the quantity and spatial representativeness while improving the quality and usefulness of climate data collected from volunteer networks.
  3. Increase and improve communication, connectedness and sense of purpose among and across the community of volunteers.
  4. Conduct and promote research utilizing precipitation data from volunteers and volunteer networks.
  5. Establish new and strengthen existing partnerships to provide financial assets, human resources and the intellectual capital needed to sustain these volunteer networks for years to come.

Procedures and Activities

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) Continue training and outreach programs that are being delivered as Webinars and other electronic media to showcase the use and value of climate data collected by volunteer networks.
c) 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.)  Increase the quantity and spatial representativeness while improving the quality and usefulness of climate data collected from volunteer networks.
a) QC – a relentless focus on QC will have cascading benefits to all other areas of CoCoRaHS, including mapping, use of the data, etc..
b) Promote use of data by NWS and others
c) Dealing with the rapid influx of daily precipitation data
d) Building relationships NWS offices to improve awareness of CoCoRaHS, recruitment and retention of observers, and provide an analysis for each office on the ‘health’ of their local observer engagement.

3.)  Increase and improve communication, connectedness and sense of purpose among and across the community of volunteers.
a)  Leverage coordinator connections with local stakeholders
b) Assist NWS with finding COOP observers from the ‘farm league’ of CoCoRaHS
c) Identify public outreach opportunities
d) Improve connections between coordinators and observers (e-mail processes, hosting training webinars, collaborate with NWS employees for webinars – spotter training)
e) new products for volunteers to view their own data and do their own analysis – citizen scientists becoming data analysts
f) encourage completeness of data – i.e. no missing days and getting data into PRISM

4.) Conduct and promote research utilizing precipitation data from volunteers and volunteer networks.
a) Continue enhancing data access and products for researchers.
b) sharing research that has already been done – promote ‘publications’ page
c) Collaborations with groups such as MRMS who are looking to incorporate precipitation data into real-time products.
d) Discuss potential future research possibilities – AI and machine learning, i.e. text analysis
e) ice accretion and hail research potential – the frozen side of CoCoRaHS and COOP

5.) Establish new and strengthen existing partnerships to provide financial assets, human resources and the intellectual capital needed to sustain these volunteer networks for years to come.
a) Explore state and local financial opportunities through expanding the current model.
b) Continue ties with National Mesonet Program
c) Identify relevant opportunities to apply for private sector, foundational and federal grants

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 System’s 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.
  • Potential involvement in NASA’s Global Precipitation Mission
  • 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.
  • 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

Education and outreach come naturally to this group, and has come a long way since 2012.  The CoCoRaHS Education Coordinator leveraged a statewide anniversary celebrating water education and promoted “CoCoRaHS for Schools”, first as a pilot in Colorado and then nationwide.  Lesson plans and educational animations were created, and schools in all 50 states have now joined and contributed to the network.  Many of these efforts were supported through existing relationships with University Extension programs and Conservation Districts.  Continued efforts will include adding new lesson plans and educational animations, as well as participation with partners in hosting professional development workshops for teachers interested in using citizen science in the classroom.  CoCoRaHS will continue 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 social media networks for improving communications among network volunteer leaders, 3) Presentations at scientific and extension conferences, 4) Continued collaboration with the now-forming professional organizations focusing on public participation in scientific research.


We plan to continue using the successful governance structure of a chair and chair-elect. CoCoRaHS leadership will administer the meeting.  The chair will set the agenda and will be responsible for the annual report. Each new year, the chair-elect will become chair and a new chair-elect will be selected by the committee.  Both the chair and CoCoRaHS leadership will communicate with the Administrative Advisor assigned to this group.

Literature Cited

Lackstrom, K., A. Farris, D. Eckhardt, N. Doesken, H. Reges, J. Turner, K. Smith, and R. Ward, 2017: CoCoRaHS Observers Contribute to "Condition Monitoring" in the Carolinas: A New Initiative Addresses Needs for Drought Impacts Information. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., pp. 2527-2531 doi:10.1175/BAMS-D-16-0306.1

Reges, H.W., N. Doesken, J. Turner, N. Newman, A. Bergantino, and Z. Schwalbe, 2016: COCORAHS: The evolution and accomplishments of a volunteer rain gauge network. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc., 97, 1831-1846 doi:10.1175/BAMS-D-14-00213.1

Barnett, Cynthia, 2015. Rain: A Natural and Cultural History. First edition. Crown Publishing Group, A Division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. ISBN: 978-0-8041-3709-6

Newman, N., 2014. Measuring Rainfall for Science: How a Citizen Science Program Reaches into the Classroom and Across the Curriculum. In The Trenches, National Association of Geoscience Teachers, vol. 4,1, (Jan.) pp. 5-7.

Newman, N., and Nolan Doesken, 2013. Counting (on) Precipitation: CoCoRaHS in the Classroom. Colorado Water, Newsletter of the Water Center of Colorado State University, vol. 30, 1 (Jan/Feb), pp. 34-36.

Burt, Stephen. The Weather Observer's Handbook. Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Reges, H., and Nolan Doesken, 2011: Creating a Volunteer Observing Network. WMO Bulletin, Volume 60(1) - 2011.

Reges, H., and Nolan Doesken, 2010: The Value of the Citizen Weather Observer. Weatherwise magazine, November-December, 2010.

III, J. T. M., Guinan, P. E., Snider, D. J., & Lupo, A. R. (2009). CoCoRaHs in Missouri: Four years later, the importance of observations. Transactions of the Missouri Academy of Science, 43, 1œ12.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.


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