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Weather observer keeps an eye on snow in U.P.

The Daily Mining Gazette, Houghton
December 17, 2001

HOUGHTON, Mich. (AP) -- Because the Copper Country receives so much snow, keeping track of it is a vital job.

The National Weather Service is one agency that keeps track. The National Weather Service office located in Negaunee Township has about 22 co-op observers and 160 volunteer observers in the Houghton County area who submit information.

"We're only one office and we can't measure it all ourselves," said Dave Obmann, a hydrometeorological technician with the weather service. "We need some help."

One person who helps is Jim Carstens, a co-op weather observer who measures weather near Michigan Tech University.

Carstens, a retired Michigan Tech professor, measures snow at the Michigan Tech site every day between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. He works in a 50 foot by 50 foot space enclosed by a chainlink fence.

Carstens uses a calibrated rule stick provided by the weather service marked off by the tenth of an inch. He clears off a large surface area to measure snowfall.

Carstens said he takes about eight to 10 measurements and averages the results to obtain the snowfall totals. Wednesday, he measured 0.02 inch.

He said blowing wind can alter the snow depth, leading to wide differences in the measurements in some situations. The averaging helps cut down on errors due to drifting.

"You have a drifting problem with snow and it has always been the Achilles' heel for snow measurers," Carstens said.

He also melts a sample of snow to measure precipitation.

Although co-op weather observers are trained by the weather service, there are several factors that can affect measurements.

"It's definitely not a precise science," said John Dee, a meteorologist based in Lake Linden.

Dee said the snow settles as it lays on the ground, or it could melt or blow away. He said he uses a simpler system of snow measurement - he uses a 3 foot by 3 foot board.

Although Carstens has a variety of automated instruments, he said the weather service asks him to take daily measurements manually. He said he is developing an automated device to measure snowfall using eight laser beams.

He said the measurements should eliminate the drifting factor by measuring the snow as it falls from the sky.

In addition to maintain the Tech station, Carstens does measurements at his Hancock home every morning. He said the total snowfall amount is not that much different from the Michigan Tech site.

Taking snow data from a variety of sources is important to the National Weather Service, Obmann said.

"With the lake effect, we get such a widely variable amount of snow across the U.P. snow belt," he said.

The data collected from the observers is incorporated into the weather service's database - one of the oldest and most comprehensive records of weather data in the world.

"Just one measurement per county wouldn't be accurate," Obmann said.

Snowfall does differ throughout the region. One Web site lists Lake Linden as having 9 inches on the ground Wednesday, while Phoenix Location in Keweenaw County had 7.

Carstens said Michigan Tech doesn't receive as much snow as many parts of the county - including the Houghton County Memorial Airport near Calumet and Painesdale. He said the university is not affected as much by orographic lifting, a phenomenon where the land mass forces clouds upward where they condense and precipitate.

"We don't have the uplifting that's required for the heavy snowfall," Carstens said.

Dee said other factors may be involved in the lower snowfall counts at Michigan Tech as his Lake Linden measurements have higher snowfall totals. He said Tech's tall buildings may be affecting wind patterns and precipitation.

One element that may be affected by lower snowfall counts is government funding. Hancock City Manager Glenn Anderson said the Federal Emergency Management Agency provides emergency relief based on snowfall records. However, the Upper Peninsula hasn't received any money from FEMA due to snowfall.

Anderson said cities and villages are funded by a 10-year average of the total snowfall. Jim Manderfield, engineer for the Houghton County Road Commission, said state funding is a static percentage every year based on an 11-year total snowfall average calculated about eight years ago.

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Material from The Daily Mining Gazette © 2001-2004, Ogden News Publishing of Mich.