Cooperative Observer Program History and Quad Cities Current Equipment

 In 1776, Thomas Jefferson began to recruit volunteer weather observers throughout Virginia. By 1800, there were volunteers in five other states across the newborn nation. They included Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New York and North Carolina. In 1891, the network of voluntary weather observers across the country had grown to 2,000 stations.

In 1890, the growing volunteer force was taken over by the Smithsonian Institution. It was not until 1953 that a plan was established to evenly blanket the nation with weather observers. Dr. Helmut Landsberg of the Weather Bureau conducted a study with Iowa State University to establish a method of filling in the open spaces of this volunteer network. As a result of this study, it was determined that there should be one weather station every 25 miles for estimating rainfall within an accuracy tolerance of ten percent. By 1990, the network had expanded to 10,000 sites. The most recent statistics estimate that there are 12,000 cooperative observers in the United States.

To date, Mr. Richard G. Hendrickson, who took weather observations for 84 years in Bridgehampton, New York, has the longest history as a Cooperative Weather Observer. He had an 80 year award named after him. On July 27, 2014, Hendrickson, age 101, received an award for his long standing service–84 years–to the nation. Since Hendrickson is the first in the history of the program to serve for more than eight decades, the new 80-year service award was named in his honor. Recently, Mrs. Ruby Stufft, a volunteer weather observer from Elsmere, Nebraska, received the first ever Ruby Stufft Award. This award will be presented to any observer who volunteers 70 years of their time. She recorded the weather for 70 years and became the first woman to reach that landmark.

 Types of Gages

15 min precipitation- The 22 sites in the Quad Cities area of responsibility are equipped with a Fischer Porter (F&PR-E) automatic rain gage. It is white and cone-shaped, resembling a small rocket. It stands about 5 feet tall and about 2 feet in diameter. The F&P collects all types of precipitation through a hole in the top. Precipitation is continuously collected in a bucket on the inside. As the bucket grows heavier, its weight presses down on a scale. The computer takes a reading every 15 minutes and stores up to 100 days of data. The data is then downloaded onto a flash-drive and the COOP Observer sends the file to the Forecast Office during the first week of the next month. The gage tallies the amount of rain and water equivalent of snow in inches, tenths, and hundredths. Pictured below left is Steve Gottschalk the the volunteer COOP Weather Observer at Lowden, Iowa. Steve has been providing daily weather observations for the NWS for over 28 years.  Next to Steve is Tom Philip, a Meteorologist Intern at the NWS Quad Cities Office. Picture taken by Tom Olsen.


24 hour precipitation- Most sites have a Standard Rain Gage (SRG). This is an 8 inch metal tube with an open top, which collects precipitation. It is sometimes called the "8 inch rain gage." In a stand, the top of the gauge is about 3 feet high. During the warmer months, a smaller tube (2" in diameter) is placed inside the 8" tube. A funnel fits on top so that the rain falls into the small tube only. The observer uses a special ruler to measure the depth of the water in the small tube. In the winter, the "funnel and two inch inner tube are taken out, and snow falls directly into the 8 inch gauge. Then the snow is melted and poured into the two inch tube to be measured as the water equivalent of the snowfall. Below is a picture of Galena, IL. COOP Observer Catherine Winslow (right) who has been taking daily weather observations for over 11 years. Left is NWS Quad Cities Office Hydro-Meteorological Technician Tom Olsen. 


Max and Min Temperature- Some temperature readings are taken using traditional mercury max/min thermometers housed in a Cotton Region Shelter (CRS). The picture of the CRS below was taken at the Mount Carroll observing site.



Most sites are equipped with a Max Min Temperature Sensor (MMTS). An MMTS is an electronic sensor in a small shelter that looks something like a white beehive (see picture below). Readings are read from an indoor digital readout. In the picture below are the COOP Observers at Keosauqua Chase Murphy (left) and Wendi Dixon (center) with Meteorologist Intern Tim Gross from the NWS Quad Cities Office. Chase and Wendi took over observing duties from Mike Rippy who retired due to health reasons. The Keosauqua area has been taking weather observations starting January 1893. See the following link for a copy of the weather form from NCDC. 

Picture taken by Tom Olsen.



River Stage- Some observers take manual stage readings at selected points along a nearby river, either using a wire-weight gage (see 1st picture below) or staff gage (see 2nd picture below) . A wire-weight gage consists of a spool of wire, with a weight attached to the end of the wire. The river level is measured by lowering the weight until it touches the river surface. The distance between the bridge and the water is measured, which is then subtracted from the distance from the bridge to the riverbed. The resulting number is the river stage. Staff gages are basically large rulers mounted somewhere within the river bed, such as on the river bank, a bridge piling, or anything next to the river.



Below is a picture of a Staff Gage on the Moline Bridge.

Evaporation - Only a few observers measure daily evaporation during the non-frozen months. This requires an evaporation pan (see below), which is a large, round, metal pan (4 feet in diameter and 10 inches deep) that looks something like a child's wading pool. The pan is leveled at a site that is usually well-sodded and free from obstructions. The pan is filled with water to a depth of about eight inches, and daily measurements are made of the water level. When the water level drops to seven inches, the pan is refilled. Daily measurements are corrected as necessary for rainfall, and in some cases water temperature. The resulting daily water loss is the evaporation for the 24 hour period.


Evaporation Pan

Soil Temperature and Frost Depth - Some stations measure soil temperatures. The soil temperature sensor is simply a set of thermometers, with each thermometer placed at a different depth (2½", 4", 8", 20", 40", and 60") in the ground. The thermometers are wired to an electronic box (see picture below) which can be read from inside the office. Frost depth is measured when ground temperatures begin to freeze. This is normally from late fall to early spring.

Soil Temperature Sensor

The picture below is of the soil temperature box (left gray colored box) with PVC pipes holding the 6 separate thermometers going into the ground. Right is the Frost Depth equipment.


Below is a picture of what the Frost Depth equipment looks like when taking a reading. The tube is filled with yellow dye to color the water and when it freezes it becomes a clear color, like the color of an ice cube. 

 The picture below was taken at the Iowa City Water Pollution Control Plant COOP Site. The COOP weather equipment pictured are the F&PR-E, the MMTS, the evaporation pan, and 8 inch Standard Rain Gauge (SRG). The white tube on the right holds the measuring sticks for the evaporation pan and the SRG. Every day, the Iowa City Water Pollution Control Plant employees take temperature, rainfall, snowfall, soil temperatures and evaporation readings. The plant's employees have been taking weather observations as far back as 1951, over 61 years.


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