Curious Nature: CoCo-what? How you can become a citizen weather scientist |

Curious Nature: CoCo-what? How you can become a citizen weather scientist

Jaymee Squires
Walking Mountains
Radical weather in your backyard? Be a citizen scientist.
Rick Spitzer photo

“Climate is what we expect, weather is what we get.” — Mark Twain

Mark Twain, revered as a literary giant, is attributed with several quotes about the weather, despite the fact that his writings are famous for their depictions of American life. But this makes sense if you consider the fact that weather impacts all areas of our lives, from the obvious, like scheduling outdoor activities, to the more subtle areas, like art and literature, where images of skies and storms are popular subjects.

Weather is so much more than temperature and precipitation, although these are two of the major ways that we feel it. Weather impacts everything from the cars we drive and the clothes we wear to the places we live and the jobs that we choose. One reason for this is that, ultimately, weather brings us water. And especially in the arid western United States, water is vital and alarmingly scarce.

If you’ve lived in the West for any length of time, then you are aware of this problem. Maybe you marched in the 1990s to protect more Western Slope water from being pumped to the Front Range when the Homestake II water project was defeated. Or maybe you are a more recent transplant trying to keep your lawn green under stringent water use restrictions. But both of these experiences, and most others with water in the West, leave us with a clear understanding of the problem. Water is limited and we have to use what we have wisely or it all flows downstream.

This brings me to my main point. Monitoring the amount of water in the high country is vitally important in helping officials and citizens to make educated decisions about water use and rationing. And for those who are so inclined, there is a citizen science program called CoCoRaHS (Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow Network) that is looking for ordinary citizens (that’s you) to help record and report precipitation.

As it turns out, it is particularly challenging for automated weather stations to report accurate precipitation amounts, particularly when they fall as snow, and so real human beings are needed for this job. CoCoRaHS is an international network of citizens that was started in Colorado after the devastating floods in Fort Collins in 1997. These citizens collect and report daily precipitation amounts (rain and snowfall totals), which are used by organizations like the National Weather Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), as well as countless meteorologists, hydrologists, emergency managers, and other professionals.

Anyone can be a volunteer. There is a minimal fee of $25 to purchase your standard rain gauge, and then you will be on your way to being part of a nation-wide network of citizen scientists. You can sign up at the website,, where you will find a comprehensive array of support tools, including training videos, access to weather data, newsletters, and all kinds of weather-related resources beyond your wildest dreams.

Believe it or not, one of the best benefits of being a CoCoRaHS volunteer is the monthly newsletter put out by State Climatologist Nolan Doesken. You might find it hard to believe that a monthly weather newsletter can be engaging every month, but Nolan always seems to have something interesting and novel to share. Maybe he, like the great Mark Twain, is also inspired by the weather and all that it means and all that it inspires in us. And if you should find yourself inspired enough to join CoCoRaHS weather watchers across the country, let them know that Walking Mountains sent you!

Jaymee Squires is the Director of Graduate Programs at Walking Mountains Science Center in Avon. An amateur weather watcher, Jaymee is always in awe of the raw power of nature and all that we can learn from watching the weather.