Thursday, April 30, 2009

CoCoRaHS: Counting spring raindrops

4/22/09 Chatterbox
Betty Kaiser

My calendar says it’s springtime but it lies. The scene outside my window tells me otherwise. The birds may be singing and building nests while the tulips bloom but it is still winter when white puffy snowflakes pile up on the roof and icy pellets of hail pummel the ground.

Winter weather is a big subject of conversation at our house. I complain about it and my husband finds it fascinating. His observations start early each morning and end when he goes to bed at night. He loves the minutia of daily weather changes.

Oregon’s weather is pretty diverse and exciting in comparison to our life in balmy California. There you could pretty much predict the daily forecast before you heard it. Days would be sunny or sunny and breezy. Nights would be clear or clear and windy. Winter high temperatures would be 61 and summer highs would be 72. Ho-hum.

That is not to say that at times we didn’t have severe weather. Some years were one natural disaster after another. Our annual winter rainfall was in the range of 17” per year. And our most common problem was drought — not enough rain.

However, when it rained, it poured! The result of excessive rain would be an abundance of plant life in the springtime that would dry up in the summer sun, result in wild fires in the fall and floods the following winter. Danger lurked in every raindrop.

Transitioning to Oregon’s constantly changing weather conditions was not difficult. We enjoyed the spring showers, set up a couple of rain gauges and marveled at how quickly the numbers added up. That first Mar. we measured 11 inches of rain.

From the get-go we enjoyed the four seasons but discovered that surprises were always in store. One bright, sunny day in July, it hailed buckets of tiny white pellets. The force of the hail was so great that it killed a hummingbird sipping nectar from my roses!

This year, it seems to me that winter is hanging on a bit too long. I’m ready to thaw out my fingers and toes in some genuine sunshine. But the weather has been so erratic that this morning’s disjointed weather forecast was for “glorious but partly sunny skies with just a chance of snow.” Huh?

Our first complete winter here, the old-timers at the donut shop used to tell me that I was a wimp when I complained about the cold. I whined that out at the lake we were shoveling snow off the deck to get to the back door. The guys would then be quick to tell me about the 121 inches of snow recorded at Cottage Grove dam in Jan. 1950. That year, hundreds of motorists were stranded in the Columbia Gorge by the relentless sleet and freezing rain. They had to be rescued by trains struggling through deep snowdrifts.

For added perspective, Orville White would regale me with stories about lambing season during those snowstorms. He would go out in the middle of the night and bring the mama sheep into the barn and warm up the babies. Next thing he knew, they’d be scampering back out into the snowy fields. No wimps there!

According to NOAA, the winter of 1969 probably holds the record for the most extreme statewide snowfall. In Eugene, a depth of 34 inches was recorded — nearly 7 times normal! In Feb. 1996 we had to evacuate a family on the creek side of us as the rain relentlessly drove logs from the hills above us and dammed up the water below. This past Dec. the Portland Airport was hammered by snow and received nearly 19” for the month, breaking its all-time record.

The weather is a subject of conversation wherever you live. Some of us don’t pay much attention until we start getting severe weather warnings that affect us personally. Many hostesses on the 4th of July pray “Please, don’t rain on my barbecue!”

Chuck, however, finds weather details fascinating all year long. He not only knows where the jet stream is but where it’s going. I don’t even know (or care) what the jet stream is!

Last month his buddy Russell Hand invited him to join the CoCoRaHS. I know, it sounds like a cross between the Spanish entertainer Charo and a heavy metal rock band but it’s an acronym for ‘Community Collaborative Rain, Hail & Snow Network.’ This nationwide group is sponsored by NOAA, Colorado State Univ., USDA, BLM and similar organizations.

A grassroots volunteer network of backyard weather observers, they measure and map precipitation (rain, hail and snow) in their local communities across the U.S. The National Weather Service, meteorologists, hydrologists, ranchers and farmers use the information they provide.

The principal membership requirement is “an enthusiasm for watching and reporting weather conditions and a desire to learn more about how weather can effect and impact our lives.”

Well, those activities are right up our resident rain man’s alley. So he applied for a position as an official “rain watcher.” He was accepted and assigned a station name and number according to the proper longitude and latitude. After studying the online training manual he graduated, ordered his gauges and is ready to go.

A sturdy high capacity, 4-inch diameter CoCoRaHS gauge has been set up in the yard — according to the prescribed distance from house, trees and fences. It has been leveled and beveled 2 ft. off the ground to capture rain, hail or snow and the moisture amount is reported promptly every morning via email.

CoCoRaHS’ motto is “Because every drop counts.” Having lived in the land of perennial drought, I know that every drop does count and our resident weatherman is counting them. Now if he could just predict an end to winter and the beginning of summer sunshine!

Betty Kaiser’s Chatterbox is about people, places, family, and other matters of the heart. Contact her at 942-1317 or via e-mail —

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