CSU weather station: 140-plus years of climate data

noah newman

Colorado Climate Center research coordinator Noah Newman reads a hygro-thermograph, which records temperature and humidity, during a morning shift at the campus weather station. 

Every day, many students, faculty and staff walk right by Colorado State University’s weather station, near the bus transit stop northwest of the Lory Student Center, and never notice it. In its current location since the 1960s, this weather station and generations of staff have been taking continuous daily weather readings since the 1870s.

The Historic Fort Collins Weather Station, as it’s called, is a humble hut flanked by several fenced-in weather monitoring instruments. It is officially a National Weather Service Cooperative Observer Program Station – the nation’s largest, oldest weather network. CSU joins more than 11,000 such Co-Op stations across the U.S. collecting daily weather data that is accessible to the public for research, teaching and meteorology. The data are also forwarded to the National Centers for Environmental Information, which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Daily routine

Colorado Climate Center research coordinator Noah Newman is one of several staff members who take turns recording precipitation, evaporation, temperature, humidity and other standard variables at 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. standard time, 365 days a year. Most of the instrument readings are taken manually, though several automated instruments provide real-time data for those who visit the website.

Fun historical fact: from the period of approximately 1937-1994, the Fort Collins weather station assisted with aviation-related observations that required much more than twice-daily readings.

“So there was a person basically living in here – because they had to take measurements every two hours,” Newman said.

The instruments the weather station uses are, among others, thermometers, barometers and rain gauges ­– including one of the manual rain gauges made popular by the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network (CoCoRaHS).

Newman and counterparts also do daily checks of the visibility of Longs Peak and the Twin Sisters, frost on the ground, and cloud cover. Every morning and evening, a fresh recording of that day’s observations is left at the weather station’s phone number. According to Newman, lawyers or investigators occasionally call the weather station to get access to the latest weather reports to aid their investigations.

New vs. old measurements

Although there are many new technologies that provide us with never before accessible information ­– such as ground-based radar and geostationary satellites – the CSU weather station, like many others, depends on tried-and-true, simple tools and human observation. However the weather station does use some newer instruments, such as an ultrasonic snow-depth sensor, which measures how much snow has fallen. This combination of high-tech and simple tools paint a complete and accurate weather report. The data are freely available in a variety of digital and hardcopy forms for anyone interested, at http://climate.colostate.edu.