Backyard weather observers contribute to science

by Lisa Sheppard, Prairie Research Institute

Whether you enjoy watching the weather or hope for more accurate local forecasts, reading a rain gauge in your own backyard as a volunteer to the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail & Snow (CoCoRaHS) network can make a big contribution to spot-on forecasts and studies of precipitation and climate, according to Trent Ford, Illinois State Climatologist at the Illinois State Water Survey (ISWS).

CoCoRaHS is a nationwide non-profit network with about 860 volunteers of all ages in Illinois, but more volunteers are needed to cover various parts of the state. Volunteers check rain gauges at the same time each day, particularly in the early morning, measure any precipitation, and report the results on an app or computer. In this way, they learn more about the weather and how it can affect our lives.

Rainfall observers help to fill the gaps where National Weather Service (NWS) stations are absent. When NWS stations are far apart and few across the state, their reports don’t account for local variability in rainfall. In Champaign County, for instance, Ford noted that last year in two locations just 8 miles apart, one area received 10 more inches of rain than the other.

“Where there are few CoCoRaHS observers, we are asking a lot of the National Weather Service stations to represent large areas that could have significant differences in rainfall,” Ford said. “When thinking in agricultural terms, 10 inches of rain could be the difference between a good crop or one that yields less than expected.”

The daily precipitation measurements that volunteers provide are important for post-event analysis to understand storms and their impacts in the state. Daily and weekly precipitation data are also used to improve predictions for next week’s forecast, Ford said.

“One thing we all share is our concern over the accuracy of weather forecasts.” Ford said. “The CoCoRaHS network makes a huge difference in helping us to understand that day-to-day weather variability.”

Observers are needed in all parts of the state, in rural and urban areas, as rain can appear in one area, but not in another. Weather forecasts are important in both agricultural areas and in cities. The observations contribute to the understanding of where there may be effects from urban or flash flooding.

In Chicago and in smaller cities, most of the CoCoRaHS observers are in the periphery of cities, leaving entire neighborhoods with no collected rain data.

 As a part of daily monitoring, volunteers indicate days when no precipitation occurs, which can be just as important as determining how much rain fell in a day or two. As the State Climatologist, Ford examines indicators for drought every week so he can make state recommendations to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which informs federal and state decisions on drought recovery assistance. 

“It’s really important for me to have data from observers to know where it didn’t rain,” Ford said. “Without the observations, we might assume that the whole county got rainfall. Accurate data are necessary, particularly when parts of the state are going into and out of drought.” 

Researchers also use the observation data in computer models and for studies of weather, climate, and water-related topics, such as streamflow and water supply planning. The data collected from volunteers have proven to be accurate enough to inform research. 

For information about the CoCoRaHS network and to join the effort, visit the CoCoRaHS website at and join at For questions, contact the Illinois State Coordinator Steve Hilberg, hberg@illinois.edu217-377-6034.

Media contacts: Trent Ford,, 217-244-1330; Steve Hilberg,, 217-377-6034

This story originally appeared on the Prairie Research Institute News Blog. Read the original.

The West’s iconic forests are increasingly struggling to recover from wildfires – altering how fires burn could boost their chances

Hotter-burning fires and a warming climate make it harder for seedlings to survive. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

by Kimberley Davis, United States Forest Service; Jamie Peeler, University of Montana, and Philip Higuera, University of Montana

Wildfires and severe drought are killing trees at an alarming rate across the West, and forests are struggling to recover as the planet warms. However, new research shows there are ways to improve forests’ chances of recovery – by altering how wildfires burn.

In a new study, we teamed up with over 50 other fire ecologists to examine how forests have recovered – or haven’t – in over 10,000 locations after 334 wildfires.

Together, these sites offer an unprecedented look at how forests respond to wildfires and global warming.

Our results are sobering. We found that conifer tree seedlings, such as Douglas-fir and ponderosa pine, are increasingly stressed by high temperatures and dry conditions in sites recovering from wildfires. In some sites, our team didn’t find any seedlings at all. That’s worrying, because whether forests recover after a wildfire depends in large part on whether new seedlings can establish themselves and grow.

However, our team also found that if wildfires burn less intensely, forests will have a better shot at regrowing. Our study, published March 6, 2023, highlights how proactive efforts that modify how wildfires burn can help buffer seedlings from some of the biggest stressors of global warming.

Intense fires overwhelm trees’ protective traits

Forests and wildfire have coexisted in the West for millennia.

Typically, forests have regrown after wildfires, thanks to an amazing set of traits that trees possess. Lodgepole pine, for example, stores thousands of seeds in closed cones sealed with resin, that only open in the presence of high heat from flames, triggering abundant regrowth. Other tree species, like ponderosa pine, have thick bark that helps them survive low-intensity wildfires.

Intense or very large “megafires” can overwhelm those traits, though. Most conifer tree species in the West depend on seeds from surviving trees to jump-start recovery following wildfire. So when intense wildfires kill most of the trees, entire expanses of forest can be lost.

Even if some trees do survive a wildfire and can provide seeds, seedlings require favorable climate conditions to establish and grow. Unlike adult trees with deep root systems, seedlings have short roots that only reach water in the top layer of soil. Seedlings are also more sensitive to summer temperatures because hot temperatures can actually kill their live cells.

Seedlings struggling to establish after wildfires

Hotter and drier conditions due to global warming are leading to more area burning. Global warming is also interacting with over a century of wildfire suppression and restrictions on Indigenous fire stewardship, which has left denser forests and more underbrush as fuel. And that is leading to more severe wildfires.

It’s also becoming harder for seedlings to establish and grow after wildfires.

We found that from 1981 to 2000, 95% of our study region had climate conditions suitable for seedlings to establish and grow after wildfires. Fast forward to 2050 and this decreases to 74%, even under modest warming where global average temperatures increase by around 2 degrees Fahrenheit (1.1 Celsius).

How these changes unfold varies across the West. Today, seedlings are least likely to establish and grow after wildfires in the Southwest and California. However, the wetter and cooler regions of the northern Rocky Mountains and Pacific Northwest still support seedling establishment and growth.

Survivor trees are crucial for sheltering seedlings

By studying both how severely wildfires burn – for example, how many trees are killed – and how climate conditions after a wildfire affect new seedlings, our team found a surprising and hopeful result.

Even when summers are hotter and drier after a wildfire than in the past, just having trees around that survived a fire helps new seedlings establish and grow.

A forest service employee walks up a hill among burned ponderosa pines with no seedlings visible.
Only a quarter of the 900,000 seedlings planted after the 2009 Station Fire in the Angeles National Park were still alive a year later. Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Besides providing seeds, surviving trees reduce temperatures on the ground, where it matters most to seedlings. In some cases, temperatures can be 4 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit cooler (2.2 to 2.8 C) around surviving trees, giving seedlings the edge needed to germinate and survive.

In our study, projections of future forests varied dramatically, depending on how many trees we assumed survived future wildfires.

Altering how wildfires burn can boost recovery

This means there is an opportunity to help offset some climate-driven declines in tree recovery – by reducing the number of trees killed in wildfires.

Reversing global warming is a long-term challenge for society, and some near-term impacts are already irreversible. But reducing the number of trees killed in wildfires can help maintain future forests. In regions where seedlings are already struggling after wildfire, such actions are needed sooner rather than later.

Science supports the use of a number of tools, or forest treatments, that can help decrease the number of trees killed by wildfires.

Controlled burning with forest thinning or cultural burning by local Indigenous groups removes small trees and brush. That leads to fewer trees killed in subsequent fires, especially in forests that historically burned frequently. In high-elevation forests that historically experienced less frequent but more severe wildfires, planting trees after wildfires can help jump-start forest recovery.

Although forest treatments are effective, wildfires burn much more area than can be feasibly treated. Given this, fire scientists suggest letting some wildfires burn when conditions are safe and more likely to leave surviving trees on the landscape.

Expanding the use of wildfires and controlled burning as management tools is challenging, but the evidence suggests it may be one of the most effective and economical ways to reduce the number of trees killed by future wildfires.

There are clear ways to lessen the impacts of global warming and wildfires on seedlings and future forests. But in some areas, even as we work to reverse global warming, the window of opportunity is short. In these areas, forest treatments that modify wildfire or jump-start recovery will be most effective in the next few decades, setting up seedlings to better withstand near-term warming.

Kimberley Davis, Research Ecologist, United States Forest Service; Jamie Peeler, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Montana, and Philip Higuera, Professor of Fire Ecology, University of Montana

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Biden’s clean energy factory jobs may elude U.S. union workers

Read the full story from Reuters.

President Joe Biden has pledged that fighting climate change will deliver millions of middle-class jobs with good wages to Americans with union membership cards.

But in the six months since passage of Biden’s signature climate change law, a large majority of the $50 billion of announced investments in domestic manufacturing to support the clean energy transition has been in states with laws that make it harder for workers to unionize, according to a Reuters analysis of corporate and state announcements.

Energy storage can be a lifesaver for people with disabilities, but policymakers can do more

Read the full story at Utility Dive.

During climate disasters and extreme weather events, people with underlying health conditions and disabilities face global mortality rates that are four times higher than those without disabilities.

Can environmental justice be woven into the carbon removal industry?

Read the full story from Carbon Herald.

The Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) industry is still in its infancy but its potential for positive climate impact is becoming clearer. With an influx of startups and scaleups entering competitions and receiving funding from public and private capital, there are clear indications of its growing potential. Two organizations think now is the best time to start talking about environmental justice and have created a set of recommendations for it.

Chemistry course corrections tackle bias

Read the full story in Nature.

The University of York’s efforts to decolonize how chemistry is taught holds lessons for other chemistry educators.

Phone-based measurements provide fast, accurate information about the health of forests

Read the full story from the University of Cambridge.

Researchers have developed an algorithm that uses computer vision techniques to accurately measure trees almost five times faster than traditional, manual methods.

A mixture of trees purifies urban air best

Read the full story from the University of Gothenburg.

Conifers are generally better than broad-leafed trees at purifying air from pollutants. A new study shows that the best trees for air purification depend on the type of pollutant involved.

Scientists use satellites to track earth ‘greening’ amid climate change

Read the full story from North Carolina State University.

Researchers found changes in ‘greening,’ or the amount of leaves plants are able to produce, will play a significant role in how much carbon dioxide plants capture and store.

Catalyst purifies herbicide-tainted water and produces hydrogen

Read the full story from Oregon State University.

Researchers have developed a dual-purpose catalyst that purifies herbicide-tainted water while also producing hydrogen.