Weather station forecast is excellent

Posted on September 27, 2011 by Staff Writer

Real-time weather data from the campus of Sweet Briar College will soon be available online, providing a precise picture of weather conditions in the moment.

Under gray skies Thursday afternoon, seniors in Tom O’Halloran’s advanced environmental science lab hoisted a roughly 10-foot weather station tower and began installing an array of meteorological instruments. The station will record air temperature, wind speed and direction, humidity, and precipitation, along with a few extras including soil moisture and temperature and radiation levels.

Trying to evenly seat the tower’s three legs into ferrules bolted to a concrete pad, Virginia Butner concluded that jumping up and down on the support members was having little effect.

“I don’t think the tower even notices,” said Butner, a transfer day student from Madison Heights.

They did level it out and, satisfied of its sturdiness, two of Stacy Ludington’s classmates spotted her while she climbed to the top to connect the lightning ground wire and the anemometer, which measures wind speed.

Butner eventually traded places with Ludington and discovered she wasn’t tall enough to see a built-in level on the radiation monitor she was attaching to the end of a boom. Mattie Witt, another local student from Bedford, rummaged through their truck for a mirror. Failing to find anything reflective there, she handed her wristwatch up to Butner.

“It’s a Fossil,” Butner said approvingly, and then, “I can see it,” with even greater enthusiasm only to ponder aloud which way to turn the leveling screws.

When the station is complete, an on-board computer called a data logger will transmit the information every 60 seconds to an Internet-connected laptop housed in a nearby shed. In addition to displaying live weather conditions on Sweet Briar’s website, O’Halloran hopes the Weather Underground will carry the feed.

O’Halloran, an atmospheric scientist, sited the station in the middle of an open field. Wireless Internet access is a challenge and he will have to wait a few weeks for equipment to be installed before going online. The advantage is highly accurate data with no trees or buildings to impede sun or wind. And the shed already had electrical service.

The Internet connection is the only piece of the project the students aren’t responsible for, from soldering and running cables to writing instructions for future students. Each of them will write a users manual for one instrument, said Caroline Sorensen, a double engineering and environmental science major from New York.

The Campbell Scientific weather station was purchased to support ecological and environmental research with a National Science Foundation grant obtained by the biology and environmental studies programs. The instrumentation and the data it collects will be useful to students across the sciences for both classroom experience and research, and to the larger community. Farmers will be able to check soil moisture, for example, and biology students can measure sunlight absorption at the surface.

O’Halloran also anticipates it will be a boon to his students. Teaching climatology in the field presents obstacles, he says.

“You can’t go out and grab the atmosphere. The only thing you can do is measure it. What’s so nice is this is a platform where we can keep adding more instruments,” such as ozone or particulate monitors, he said.

O’Halloran is new in the environmental studies department, which includes the environmental science major. Department chair Rebecca Ambers welcomes his expertise.

“Atmospheric science is hugely important within the scope of environmental science, given the problems of climate change and air pollution that the global ecosystem now faces,” Ambers said. “We are delighted to have Tom with us this year because he brings this new dimension to our department.”