MARQUETTE — Have you ever wondered how weather and climate data displayed on your phone, computer, newspaper or TV is gathered, analyzed and delivered?
A group received an in-depth look at this topic on Tuesday during a Northern Center for Lifelong Learning presentation by Dr. Ken Hinkel, a research professor at Michigan Tech University and an emeritus professor at the University of Cincinnati.
Hinkel has operated weather stations and climate networks in many locations, such as the Huron Mountain Club, a blueberry patch near Chassell and sites in Alaska.
A key part of understanding the data is recognizing the difference between weather and climate, he said, noting many U.P. residents are probably well-acquainted with the fact that weather can vary greatly with minor differences in time and location.
“For example, when I left my cottage on Keweenaw Bay this morning, it was snowy. There were six inches of snow on the ground and it was cloudy and very threatening,” Hinkel said. “After I shoveled and scraped, I left. And two miles down the road on the way to Baraga, it was perfectly clear and there was a half-inch of snow on the ground, and that was it.”
While weather describes conditions specific to a given time and location, climate is a long-term summary of weather conditions over the past 30 years in a given region, he said.
Climate data is what provides the “normal” data for a given day or season of the year, as this large set of data collected over a long period of time gives citizens and scientists a robust basis for comparison, Hinkel said.
For example, climate data can help researchers understand if there are more days above freezing during a winter season than would normally be expected during the season.
So where does all of this information come from? Weather stations throughout the U.P. and the nation collect data on precipitation, snowfall, wind velocity and direction, the temperature of the air and ground, and other details.
Stations designed to provide current information through the National Weather Service or other entities transmit weather data in real-time via satellite or a wireless internet connection, while long-term research stations may store the data on a hard drive until it can be retrieved.
Individual stations provide specific information for a given time and location, while distributed networks of weather stations in a region form climate networks can be used to “get an idea of what the regional patterns are like,” he said.
A local example of a climate network can be found at the Huron Mountain Club, where Hinkel has worked for over a decade to understand the lake’s effect on temperature and snow, as well as how topography impacts climate.
One finding of the research is that two sites located only about three miles apart on the property have “different climate regimes all together” as one site is near the lakeshore and separated from the inland meadow site by a hill, he said.
“They’re completely decoupled from each other, as a result of A., the lake effect, and B. the fact that you have this highland between the two,” Hinkel said.
The lakeshore site tends to be a few degrees cooler than the inland site in the summer, he said, as the lake has a cooling effect on near-shore areas. However, the story changes in the winter, as the lakeshore site tends to be warmer than the inland site due to the water’s relative warmth.
“There’s a lake effect that’s very strong,” he said.
Beyond research stations like the ones used by Hinkel, there are many types of weather stations, ranging from stations at airports that are “highly, highly regulated,” by the federal government and use top-tier equipment with high levels of precision and accuracy, to secondary stations at places such as experimental farms, to stations placed by small organizations or individuals, he said.
While the smaller stations aren’t included in data from the National Weather Service, these are included in the crowd-sourced data offered by Weather Underground, Hinkel said.
“There are a lot of weather stations,” he said. “But there are disadvantages. One disadvantage is that the quality of instruments making the measurements and the way instruments are set up may not be the same.”
While the data might not be perfectly standardize, it provides hyper-localized weather information, he said. For example, if the nearest top-tier weather station is 30 miles away from a person’s location, but a smaller station set up by an individual is within a mile, this could offer more accurate information on current conditions in the person’s area.
So what if you want to set up your own weather station that reports to crowd-sourcing entities such as the Weather Underground?
Hinkel recommends researching weather data collection equipment, as prices and quality can vary widely. He also noted the Weather Underground requires stations to provide real-time data, meaning a satellite uplink or wireless internet connection would be needed.
It’s important to recognize, he said, that many factors regarding the placement and type of equipment used can impact the collection of weather data.
Ideally, a weather station should be placed in an open field on a grassy surface at least 30 feet away from buildings and shade conditions that could impact data readings.
However, for citizen scientists who wish to set up their own weather stations, he emphasized that a lack of these exact conditions shouldn’t stop them.
The NCLL is a nonprofit organization that aims to promote learning throughout the lifespan by regularly offering classes on a variety of topics.
Tuesday’s class was the NCLL’s first course offering for the winter of 2019-2020, organizers said. The next two courses to be held are: “Cyberlaw, Fake News, Data Collection and Your Rights,” from 2 to 4 p.m. Tuesday at the Peter White Public Library and “Bringing Smiles Across the Miles” from 7 to 8:45 p.m. on Nov. 19. Advance registration is required, call 906-227-2979 or visit nmu.edu/ncll for more information.
Cecilia Brown can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248.