Return to High-wire writing
observer keeps an eye on snow in U.P.
By RYAN OLSON
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
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,"
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
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.