At 11 a.m. on Monday, Dec. 31, the temperature was 16.7 degrees, the sky was partly cloudy and the collector had some snow and ice.
Official weather reporting for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration by chemistry professor Jennifer Johnson and faithful volunteer students takes place every day the Bitterroot College is open.
"It is neat to be involved and to be tracking climate change and how it affects us specifically, not only with temperature but also with precipitation," Johnson said. "I think it is an important thing and it is a nice thing we can involve students with because it is active research.”
Johnson manages the weather station that is one of 941 in Montana out of 33,691 nationwide for the National Weather Service under the United States Department of Commerce.
Every day at 11 a.m., plus or minus 15 minutes, the weather station team records weather observations, maximum and minimum temperatures, then collects and measures precipitation and for the past 24-hours.
Snow falls into the precipitation gathering cylinder, then it is melted, poured in to a rain gage, measured and reported in to a log book. Student volunteers from any field of study assist in the project.
“It requires reliability and measuring skills and they gain those even though they may not be science minors,” Johnson said. “When they read the gage there is a little part they have to estimate. I teach them how to look and measure. They get to know what these increment lines mean and how to estimate.”
The Bitterroot College weather station is called Nimbus due to the Nimbus Digital Thermometer that reads the temperature outside and reports it inside.
“We usually write current observations of the sky,” Johnson said. “Partly cloudy, clear or overcast, or actively raining or fog. We’ll even report on smoky days in the summer so they know what’s being experienced in the area. There is a distinctive difference between smoke and fog – smell and color.”
Johnson uploads the local weather information on the national website every week.
“For days that we are not open and we are not here, we can still collect the maximum and minimum temperatures for that day but there is no observation to add to the report,” Johnson said. “We collect the next day for precipitation and we mark it as having been collected over two days, or three days if it is a longer weekend.”
Johnson said her goal is automation to gather daily or hourly temperature data.
"I've got someone working on a computer program to have that temperature information on a live feed," Johnson said. "Ultimately, I'd like to have that on our website, so people can use it. I'd like radio stations to be able to say, 'Bitterroot College has a temperature of 29' or whatever it is."
The biggest challenge in writing the programming is that the technology is old, possibly from 1989. The equipment was donated by NOAA.
“It poses a bit of a technology challenge but we are close,” Johnson said.
The Bitterroot College reporting has been constant since the NOAA weather station was established there September 2017.
Johnson said she has not analyzed the data but recommends visiting the NOAA website once the government reopens.
The gathered data is used by NOAA and also in Environmental Sciences, Climatology and Geology classes.
Johnson said the data is also used Adjunct Instructor Jaime Middleton's math classes at the college.
"She will use it in her courses to calculate things like standard negation and things like that," Johnson said. "They can use real data that they have to take and analyze those numbers to get averages and things like that. It's is cool to have students involved in basic research."