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Volunteers help measure storms

New Mexico is the fifth largest state in the country, but official rain gauges are few and far between, especially in more rural parts of the state. A lack of rainfall data makes measuring storms and warning others of their intensity a difficult task. That's where the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network (CoCoRaHS) comes in.



CoCoRaHS observers helped measure rain fall and hail during a series of powerful storms in Doņa Ana County during the summer of 2006. ( Courtesy photo )

"It's a volunteer network of people who measure precipitation in their backyards," said Deborah Bathke, assistant New Mexico state climatologist and assistant professor in New Mexico State University's Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences. She heads up CoCoRaHS in New Mexico along with Leeann DeMouche from NMSU's Department of Extension Plant Sciences.

The program began in 1998, a year after a major storm dropped more than 12 inches of rain over a small portion of Fort Collins, Colo. Other parts of the city received less than two inches of rain. Five people died in flash flooding. The storm caused millions of dollars in damage.

"Precipitation is highly variable," said Bathke. "Even in a city the size of Las Cruces, it can be raining in one part of a city, but not the next. This network lets us quantify those differences in precipitation."

The National Weather Service can use information from CoCoRaHS observers while tracking major storms and forecasting their paths and rainfall potential.

"The weather service can get a better idea of what happened after a major storm event by looking at what was collected in different areas," said Bathke. She said that's what happened in El Paso and Doņa Ana counties following a series of major storms and floods in the summer of 2006.

Volunteers are asked to record rainfall and other measurements and post them online daily at 7 a.m. - the same time official weather results are gathered.

Bathke said the volunteer stations also give forecasters and researchers better information on hail. "Right now, there's very little qualitative data for hail," she said.

Observers are given both a "hail pad" and a "hail card" to measure size and consistency of hail in storms. Once a storm is finished, the foam and foil hail pad can be sent to a laboratory for precise measuring.

Sixteen states are now part of CoCoRaHS. New Mexico was the fifth to adopt the program in spring 2005 and currently 524 observers are registered in the state.

New observers can register and take an online weather observer training course at http://www.cocorahs.org/. CoCoRaHS will provide all the necessary equipment for volunteers to get started.

CoCoRaHS in New Mexico is supported by the NMSU College of Agriculture and Home Economics Water Task Force and the Rio Grande Basin Initiative.
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