I grew up in West Texas watching funnel clouds traverse the sky (and occasionally the ground) every spring and summer. Rain was scarce enough to be a big event, especially since it almost only fell as part of awesome and powerful thunderstorms. Everyone sat on the porch to watch to watch the Lord's lightning show. So I grew up with my eyes to the sky, learning to recognize what the different colors and cloud types meant and when to run and hide in the bath tub (we did not have a basement).
Why is this brief slice of my history relevant now? Well, as of today, the Midwest Texan (and family) is proud to be a National Weather Service (NWS) Cooperative Observer. The NWS uses volunteer observers, collectively known as the Cooperative Observer Program, to gather the majority of the weather data that they use to generate forecasts, to track weather patterns, and even to issue severe weather alerts. The NWS has used coop observers for a very long time. In fact, in 1933, Henry Wallace, then Secretary of Agriculture, told then President Roosevelt that the Cooperative Observer Program was one of the most extraordinary and cost effective services ever developed. Today, it still continues to net the public more per dollar expended than any other government service in the world.
In addition to being trained a weather spotter, I am now tracking, and reporting on a daily basis, 24-hr precipitation rates. Our home's location (now known as the NWS Swisher Cooperative Station) is such that it is considered the official precipitation report for the Eastern Iowa Airport (aka Cedar Rapids Airport). So when you look on-line for weather data in Cedar Rapids and you see "precipitation reported at the Cedar Rapids airport" that is our backyard...errr, station. I am so jazzed about it this. (DH and I have already had a good natured argument over who gets to wear the NWS ball cap that came with our official rain gauge. He covets my hat!)
This isn't rocket science and it isn't hard. I am just going out to check a Standard Rain Gauge (SRG) every morning at 7AM. The SRG, provided and installed by the NWS, is a hollow, 8-inch diameter, metal tube with an open top, which collects precipitation. The opening at the top is mounted about 3 feet from the ground. During the warmer months, a 2-inch diameter clear acrylic tube is placed inside the 8" tube. A funnel fits on top so that the rain falls into the small tube only. I use a NWS provided ruler to measure the depth of the water in the small tube. In the winter, the small tube and funnel are removed, and snow falls directly into the larger metal tube. Then, that snow is melted down and poured into the small tube to be measured. Outside of that, I simply log what kind of weather I see each day. Is it raining and if so at what times? Is it foggy and if so what is the estimated visibility? Most people mentally note this stuff as they go about their day as it is. I simply take a few seconds to write it down. What is so cool is that doing this is helping the community on a larger scale while satisfying my fascination with weather in general. Now all I need to do is talk DH into letting me get a nice home weather station with an anemometer, barometer etc., all with a wireless up link to a computer so I can track the data via spreadsheet.