You could call it a weather station in a suitcase, and it may help fill a major data gap that’s plagued forecasters and climatologists for years.
Using off-the-shelf electronics and some plastic parts made on a 3-D printer, researchers at the National Weather Service’s International Activities Office in Silver Spring, Maryland, have come up with a way to put weather stations pretty much anyplace in the world.
“We aren’t claiming that they are going to rival commercial versions for accuracy, but they will be in the ballpark, and it will at least be a huge step forward for data collection,” Martin Steinson, project manager for the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, said Monday.
The station can be assembled for about $200 from a Raspberry Pi, which is a credit-card sized computer for hobbyists, sensors, wires and plastic parts built on a 3-D printer. The goal was to have the entire station created out of easily available parts so that maintenance and construction costs would be low.
A commercial station can cost $10,000.
The small kits may solve a big problem that has plagued weather forecasters and climate modelers for some time -- a lack of reliable data from a large part of the developing world.
The first place researchers want to get these stations installed is Africa, Steinson said.
“Africa is a huge data desert largely because the cost of commercial quality weather stations is so high and the maintenance requirements are beyond the budgets of the weather services out there,” said Steinson, who is attached to the weather service’s International Activities Office in Silver Spring, Maryland.
This means that for a forecaster on the ground in Africa, predicting the weather isn’t easy. Using the kits, forecasters will have reliable temperature, humidity, air pressure, wind speed and precipitation data from wherever the stations are built.
The data can then be transmitted back to a central office or collected from data cards.
Steinson said his colleague Kelly Sponberg came up with the idea a few years ago and it was funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. The plan is to start installing them in Zambia in August or September.
While the stations will improve forecasting on the ground, they may also help weather and climate models the world over.
On-the-ground information is often superior to that gathered by a satellite, so having a set of accurate measurements would boost the quality of the models. One of the main problems researchers often face in trying to compile global temperatures is a lack of consistent and cataloged data from Africa.
In addition, for people living in North America, what goes on in Africa can play big role in how many hurricanes emerge out of the Atlantic and eastern Pacific in any given year.
Storms across the continent often become the seeds of hurricanes once they hit the open waters of the Atlantic, and the amount of humidity can influence how and if the powerful tempests form.
In addition to Africa, Steinson said talks are also under way with the Caribbean Institute for Meteorology and Hydrology in Bridgetown, Barbados, to possibly install the stations across the Atlantic islands. Schools across the U.S. have also contacted weather service about building the stations.
Steinson said the stations are small and light and he actually packed two of them into a suitcase to take to a demonstration.
Who knows, in a few years everyone may have their own weather station they can cart with them on vacations, to the market and just to get the read on conditions in their own backyard. Then we can just blame ourselves when the forecast for sunshine is spoiled by thunderstorms.