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Want to help the National Weather Service track snow this winter? Here's how.

A map of the United States with multicolored dots showing precipitation amounts.
Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network
The Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network is a network of 10,000-plus volunteers that collect precipitation information to help science agencies like the National Weather Service and the US Department of Agriculture.

When driving even a short distance through northern Michigan in the winter, the weather can feel contradictory. Keith Berger, the Observing Programs Leader at the National Weather Service in Gaylord, agrees. 

“Anybody in lake effect snow country knows that it could be snowing to beat the band and you pick up a foot, meanwhile five miles down the road they've got a couple inches or a dusting," he says.

It’s his agency's job to keep track of how much snow is falling and where. But, that can be difficult when it’s so patchy.

“We have some good weather data in Northern Michigan in the bigger towns, in Sault Ste Marie and Alpena and Traverse City and Houghton Lake," says Berger. "But there's a whole lot of land in between there.”

To help fill in the gaps, the National Weather Service relies on an organization known as the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network, or “CoCoRaHS” for short.

It’s a nationwide network of over 10,000 volunteers that measure and report rain and snow at their locations.

Matt Gillen, a meteorologist at NWS Gaylord, says tracking snow in your backyard can be done with just a few basic tools.

“We need a ruler or yardstick or something like that," he says. "And we need a snow board.”

A man holds a plastic cylindrical container atop a flat white board.
Credit Kaye LaFond / Interlochen Public Radio
Interlochen Public Radio
Matt Gillen, meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Gaylord, shows off a standard rain gauge and a "snow board" for collecting and measuring snowfall.

He doesn’t mean the kind of snowboard you take down a hill — he means a flat, light-colored surface, like a piece of plastic or plywood painted white. It's something for snow to collect on until you measure its depth.

After you measure, you clear the board off and put it back on top of the snow so it’s ready for the next snowfall.

Depending on how fluffy it is, an inch of snow usually melts into much less than an inch of water. Scientists need to know exactly how much water that snow depth translates to. So, CoCoRaHS observers also need tocollect their snow in a rain gauge. All observers use the same one - available online for less than 25 bucks.

“You let the snow fall into this 8-inch cylinder," says Gillen. "You bring it inside, run it under some warm water, get it to melt, and it's got a nice ruler there on the side, and you'll be able to tell what your snowfall equated to in a liquid equivalent.”

Berger says observers then log into the CoCoRaHS website and report their data.

“They’re real good at giving you instant gratification," he says. "Because you can see right on the map, 'ope! there's my measurement,' and it color-codes your precipitation. You can see what your neighbor's got, you can see what people in the next town over got.”

There’s supposed to be a little more precipitation than usual this winter, so there should be plenty of snow to measure.

If that sounds like fun, you can visit CoCoRaHS.org to sign up and get trained.

Kaye LaFond
Kaye is an alumnus of Michigan Tech's environmental engineering program. She got her start making maps for the Traverse City-Based water news organization Circle of Blue, and, since then, she's been pretty devoted to science communication and data visualization.