By Dale Maxson, Eastern Iowa Land Steward – TNC
With many facets of land stewardship, our daily course of action revolves around weather and our ability to understand its patterns and influence on the world around us. This is especially true when it comes to wildland fire, both prescribed and wild. Down in the Land of the Swamp White Oak in southeast Iowa we recently installed a Remote Automated Weather Station (RAWS) to help us track these environmental factors that influence our work. These stations are significantly more robust than the typical home weather station you might pick up at the farm store. In 1975 the US Forest Service began investigating automated weather stations to replace the manual measurements that rangers and firefighters across the US were collecting in order to support fire danger ratings. By 1978, they had finalized a general design for these automated weather stations. They were, and continue to be, required to collect a minimum set of data including precipitation, wind speed & direction, air temperature, relative humidity, battery voltage (remember, these are remote stations so they are typically solar powered and require a battery backup), solar radiation, and universal coordinated time (coordinated through GPS readings). The data are collected, stored on a local datalogger, and transmitted on an hourly basis to a Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES). That information is shared through a network, and used by NOAA scientists to help inform fire weather forecasts across the country. Like with most things fire or federal, there is a thick manual outlining the standards for these stations. These stations are completely automated; no wifi or power feed needed.
The user has a few options for tapping in to the data. They can download directly from the USB port on the datalogger, connect to the online RAWS network through MesoWest or for specially equipped stations they can tune in to the robot-voiced text-to-speech function on a designated radio frequency, allowing for real-time weather updates without having a human assigned to constantly take weather observations. Unlike seasonal hires, the RAWS station doesn’t mind if it is cold or raining, and never asks about overtime pay. The platform for RAWS allows for a wide array of customization. For ours, we wanted to add sensors to gauge 10 hour fuel moisture and temperature (helpful when considering prescribed fire objectives like woody debris consumption) , as well as soil temperature and moisture at 10cm and 60cm below soil surface. The additional sensors were essentially plug and play. Using the MesoWest website https://mesowest.utah.edu you can filter weather stations by RAWS network for a geographic region, producing an interactive map like this:
Alternately, you can navigate directly to a known weather station to view more in-depth data. The Cedar River TNC SWAMP station can be found here. Does everybody need a RAWS at their site? No! Take a look at the map on MesoWest. There are clearly gaps in the network, and there are some great land stewards continuing to do great work in those gaps. For most situations, the farm store weather station, handheld weather meter like a Kestrel, or an old-school belt weather kit will give you good data to work with. We are beginning long-term monitoring at our preserve, and the RAWS setup made sense for our specific objectives. Consider your objectives and build your data accordingly.