Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Tracking the Weather and Hurricane Sandy with Citizen Science - Part III

Hopefully this posts finds everyone safe.  Hurricane Sandy walloped us with a big punch in the DC area, but the storm has pretty much passed and the cleanup can begin.  So let's look back at what happened as told through the eyes of our backyard weather station.

First we have a nice chart of barometric pressure (green) as well as average wind speed (blue) and wind gusts (red).  Wwe can see the slow but steady drop in pressure as Sandy nears.  As the pressure drop accelerates we can also see how the wind speed start to ramp up.  Winds near their peak strength at the lowest pressure point (28.70 in/Hg) and then quickly drop as the pressure increases.  So once the storm actually hits and starts moving away we immediately see a drop in storm intensity.  The time markers weren't able to display in the actual image, but the sharp decline in pressure started around 9:00 AM with peak wind/lowest pressure at 9:40PM.  I can't claim an end time since the storm had not fully dissipated when the data was downloaded, but certainly things have abated a lot.

Relative Pressure, Wind Speed, and Wind Gusts During Hurricane Sandy
Image Courtesy: OpenScientist

Now let's look at rainfall.  For the length of the storm (until I downloaded the data) we received approximately 4.8 inches of rain.  I was actually expecting more but this is in line with predictions.  Most of the time the rain was not overly intense...averaging under 0.2 inches per hour.  But we do have a big surge of rain (1.1 inches per hour) around 9:00 AM on Monday.  That is the same time as the barometric pressure really starts falling and the storm is now being felt.  So it's interesting how the actual moisture falls the most at the beginning.  However, excluding that one big surge, we also see a clear overall trend where the hourly rainfall generally increases/decreases in reverse proportion to the barometric pressure (in other words, one goes up as the other goes down).

Relative Pressure and Hourly Rainfall During Hurricane Sandy
Image Courtesy: OpenScientist

Looking beyond the scientific part of the hurricane, the data also tell a very human story too.  Using the weather station's sensors inside the INDOOR control station we can measure temperature inside our house as well as the weather outside.  The first thing you'll notice is a drop from 80 degrees to 74 degrees...this is me taking the console out of the box and letting it start record.  It was previously in a box next to a heating register and had to cool down a bit before registering room temperature.  There are then a few blips while the heater flips on and off to maintain a constant temperature in the house.  Still quite normal.  Then we see a big spike...that's around 6:00 when my wife started a fire in the fireplace.  Perfect for staying warm on a stormy night.  But then a problem hits right at 10:10PM Monday night (indicated by the red line)...that's when our power went out and we lost heating.  Temperatures keep dropping unchecked until 3:00AM earlyTuesday morning...that's the green line when PEPCO restored our power.  Temperatures rise as we stay snug in our beds until it hits 72 degrees; the new level set by my wife after it almost felt too hot.

Taking this one step further, compare the times between when we lost and regained power on the other charts (signified by the yellow lines).  This coincides with the period of strongest wind gusts.  Right up until 3:00 when after the wind drops down sharply...only then could power crews get back to work and restore our power.

So not only do we get interesting scientific data, it also tells the story of electric power and how quickly it's loss can be felt inside the home.

Internal Home Temperature During Hurricane Sandy
Image Courtesy: OpenScientist

Finally, there is one other interesting thing from all this data.  Look at the wind speeds again in the first graph.  Notice how even during the biggest increase at the height of the storm, the average wind speed was never more than 5.4 mph and the wind gusts were never more than 9.2 mph.  Very low for a hurricane.  What's happening here?

My first guess was the siting of the weather station...but I kept it away from the house and nearby tress as it sat at the edge of my patio near the middle of backyard.  So that's not it.  My second guess was it was too low...but the patio is raised a few feet above the yard itself and the station is a foot above the actual stand.  It could be a broken gauge...but I watched it spin quickly during large gusts and slow down during low times.  None of those could be it.  One clue I have was sometimes a big gust would come along and greatly shake the large (60-80 foot tall) trees around my house.  At this same time, however, the shorter trees (10-20 feet tall) would not be shaking, their leaves would not be falling off, and the wind gauge would only be spinning at a moderate pace.  I also noticed that my neighbor had left many small pots and lightweight patio furniture outside during the storm, but none was picked up or thrown around by the wind.

This leads to two theories:
  1. Wind gusts can only be felt much higher in the sky than the first 20 feet or so.  But this doesn't make sense when walking the streets of watching normal hurricane footage.  Clearly high winds are at ground level too.
  2. Strong winds and strong wind gusts are greatly mitigated in a forest setting.  My house is in a relatively wooded area and is surrounded on most sides by large trees and many smaller trees.  Could the winds be hitting this foliage and being somewhat neutralized?  Are they creating a wind barrier for my house?
Out of sheer personal interest I'm really curious whether hypothesis number 2 has any real merit.  So it's time to hit the library and maybe set up some additional experiments to test it.  All that will be in a future set of blog posts, so stay tuned to this page!


Saturday, October 27, 2012

Tracking the Weather and Hurricane Sandy with Citizen Science - Part II

Photo Courtesy: OpenScientist
I've always been interested in the weather.  We learn about it in school and get daily mini-lessons each day on the news.  Teachers show us how to watch it scientifically with weather stations in schools across the country, and there are thousands of everyday people studying it out of pure curiosity.  So the approach of Hurricane Sandy and the unique weather associated with it piqued my interest once again.  Now it's time to teach myself about weather at home and become a meteorological citizen scientist.

The last blog post discussed all my requirements for a home weather station and how I ultimately chose the Ambient Weather WS-5300 as the right equipment for me.  I placed an order through Amazon and it arrived mere days later.  Opening the box my first impression is that pieces are smaller than expected and the plastic does not look very rugged. Though upon closer inspection they do seem tough enough to handle the job (we'll find out soon enough when Sandy arrives).

Photo Courtesy: OpenScientist

Setting up the weather station took a bit over an hour. While it really is not too complex and the instructions are relatively clear, there were a few hiccups and I had to undo a few things after installing them the wrong way. I also didn't realize the need for a precision screwdriver for many of the screws and bolts (make sure to fish yours out of the tool shed before getting started). Now that I've set up once I could probably install another in just 10-15 minutes, but this first time took much longer.

Once all the connections are tightened and the wires strung it's time to set up outdoors.  When choosing a site make sure to stay at least 5 feet away from any structures (or trees) and at last twice as far from the highest structure as it is tall (so if your house is 30 feet tall make sure to be at least 60 feet away from it). This will keep the wind blowing straight and ensure the rain does not get blocked. You'll also want to find level place to either stake down the weather station or put down a very heavy stand. This does not come with the station but really is needed...especially if you are setting it up for a hurricane. In my case the metal stand for a patio umbrella does the job quite nicely but you may have other options at your site. If you have problems check out the Ambient installation site for tips and tricks for selecting a weather station location.  You'll see mine set up at the top of the page here, in my backyard but away from all the surrounding trees.

Once installed, aligned to the North, and with 2 x AA batteries installed, it's time to for the electronic installation. Everything flows through the weather console to the computer so we start with the console first.  Just add 2 more AA batteries and set the date/time.  Took less than a minute and I can already watch weather readings coming in wirelessly from the station outside.  Fortunately no wireless set up is required (phew!) Next plug the console into a PC with a USB cable then install the EasyWeather software included in the box.  It also loads in less than a minute, though starting it the first time requires actually right-clicking on the program and choosing "Run as Administrator".  But besides that awkwardness the start-up is simple.  You know have the same information showing on both the weather station console and your own monitor, and you can use both to see the current conditions.

Once the set-up is fully complete the computer provides many tools for analyzing, graphing, and reporting the collected data.  So for now I will let the machine keep collecting information and watch what happens over the next 72 hours.  Once we have some interesting data come in the next post will be all about the interesting things we can do with it.

During this time I recommend following the Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang for continuing updates on the storm.  They provide similar forecasts that others do, but they also provide a large amount of educational information about each prediction focused on weather buffs and citizen scientists like ourselves.  So you can follow the storm and get an education as well.

Stay Safe!


Friday, October 26, 2012

Tracking the Weather and Hurricane Sandy with Citizen Science - Part I

Let's talk about the weather.

Photo Courtesy: Ambient Weather
I've been planning to plunge into citizen science weather projects but was pulled aside while writing about other important topics (such as encouraging donations to Smithsonian citizen science projects).  But with the approach of Hurricane Sandy (aka "Frankenstorm!") this seemed like the perfect time to start.  As a blogger in Washington DC we are right in the storm's bulls-eye and a great opportunity to gather interesting weather readings and show what the equipment station can really do.  And frankly it seemed fun too!

My goal is to better understand the climate in my local area and how it relates to the many nature projects I'm also working in.  As you've seen in this blog there are a huge number of nature-based citizen science projects and I've been participating in many of them.  Over the last year information about all the plants and animals in my backyard is available to researchers studying those species and the environment.  So if I can add detailed climate information to this data there may be many additional discoveries that can be made.

I'm also very interested in meteorology as a thriving arena for citizen science.  I have not written much about it but there is a long tradition of everyday people providing weather data to professional forecasters.  Not everything can be recorded at government science stations and much must come from widely dispersed people from all corners of the country.  In addition, many people have begun sharing and using this data for their own weather studies outside of "official" channels.  Much of it even exceeds forecasts from government sources.  So it's an area long-deserving attention from this blog.

The only way to understand this field is to actually join in, and the first step is purchasing my very own personal weather station.  So let's get started.  When reviewing equipment options I had a few simple requirements.
  1. Affordable price.  It had to be under $200 and preferably closer to $100.  There are many good-quality weather stations for home use that are more expensive ($300 and up) but that didn't seem appropriate for the everyday person just getting started with weather-based citizen science.
  2. Scientifically reliable results: There are many consumer grade weather stations available at reasonable prices, but these seem mainly for personal entertainment and can't be used by professional researchers. I wanted this data to be meaningful and have the potential to advance true meteorological research.
  3. Measures all important weather conditions.  Nearly all provide temperature with rainfall and barometric pressure also being quite common.  But wind speed also seemed important, especially if I want to provide meaningful research data.
  4. Wireless capability.  I can't afford a dedicated computer for this experiment and I can't run wires outside for it.  So some wireless capability was needed.
  5. Widely available:  My blog reaches a national (and dare I say it international) audience so any option should be available to the greatest number of potential readers.
After much research I finally chose the Ambient Weather WS-500 Wireless Home Weather Station.  Priced at $114.00 through Amazon.com (now on sale for $69.99!!) it was well within my budget.  This model has been very popular and supplies have run low at times, but I was lucky enough to get one recently.  It is a stand-alone unit with wireless transmission/recording that collects rainfall, temperature, wind speed, wind direction, and barometric pressure data.  It is also compatible with various data protocols used by various weather amateur and professional weather networks (more about this in a future post).  The only draw-back was from many reviewers commenting that an extra temperature and solar radiation shield is required to give the most accurate readings.  While sold separately it was a bit expensive, but the total price of both the station and was still under $160 (at the time) and met my pricing criteria.

In just a few short days it arrived on my doorstep.  It was a small box inside a much larger box, but much was packed into it.  But was it simple to set up?  What does it look like?  All that it tomorrow's post!  So join me on Saturday as we set everything up and prepare for the big storm.

In the meantime I highly recommend following the Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang for continuous updates on the storm.  I follow this group closely not only for their highly local coverage and breaking news update, but because they have been strong supporters of meteorological citizen science and include much information from highly-informed, hard-working amateurs who provide a fresh perspective on the weather.  Not only it's local impact, but the hows and whys written in a way that's accessible to professionals and lay-people alike.  So if you don't follow them already this storm is the perfect chance to get acquainted!


Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Out with the Old...In with the New

I've been away for a few weeks so let's start off with a quick recap.  Some may see this as good news/news.  But I like to think of it as good news just in different ways.

First off, the OldWeather project has recently expanded with new data arctic weather data sets.  Taken from National Archives records of US Navy and Coast Guard ships, the weather logs in this set date back to 1850 and offer unique polar data unable elsewhere.  The research team can't do this alone and needs the help of everyday people to transcribe all the handwritten log information; leaving a great opening for citizen scientists and readers of this blog.

Second, two distributed computing projects we've been following are drawing to a close. Just announced last week, the Computing for Clean Water and Help End Muscular Dystropy will no longer be sending users data to analyze. Instead we've all done all the number-crunching needed by the scientists and they are now actively analyzing the reams of data. But that's what happens when projects are successful; the data collection ends and the discovery begins. It's also the start of publishing the data for the whole world to see. So despite the loss of a citizen science project I still consider it a very good thing.

Finally, you may have noticed that my "Citizen Science Supports the Smithsonian" campaign has been extended longer than initially planned.  Although I haven't had as many takers as expected, donations do keep coming in and I want to continue supporting the museums and science centers across the country.  So please consider even a small donation. 

I'll even make a matching contribution for each donor as an incentive!  Won't you help too?