Backyard data collection then and now

Post by Chris Kucharik

As a lead researcher on WSC, I am thrilled to be able to work with some of the world’s best scientists and apply our knowledge locally to help make our watershed a better place to live for current and future generations. At times I find myself reflecting on how I ended up in this position and realized that, from a science perspective, not much has changed since when I was a young boy. I’m still doing some of the same things now that I did when I was 10 years old.

My wife considers me one of the “lucky” ones. From an early age, I knew exactly what career path I wanted to take. What was my passion as a five year old? It was the weather.

I don’t know why I had this fascination with meteorology, but I was continually drawn to it. Each weeknight, I did everything I could to watch the 6:00pm weather forecasts on all three local TV network affiliates in Milwaukee, flipping back and forth to monitor them simultaneously.

As a grade school student, my parents encouraged this interest wholeheartedly. They bought me my own home weather station, which we mounted to our backyard cedar plank fence. The station consisted of a thermometer, a glycerin barometer, and an archaic-looking device that measured wind speed and direction. I would also collect rainwater in cans to measure the rainfall.

In the fifth grade, my teacher was aware of my interest and helped get a more elaborate weather station for the roof of our school, Lincoln Elementary in West Allis, Wisconsin. It came with a cluster of wired instruments that, mounted to a school library wall, provided continuous readouts of wind, temperature, rainfall, and barometric pressure for everyone to see. My teachers allowed me to chart the daily barometric pressure and temperature. I taped sheet after sheet of graph paper to the longest wall in the library, eventually plastering it with 180 days of data. Thus, at the age of 11, was my earliest research experience.

Upon graduating from grade school in 1982, my fifth grade teacher gave me an impressive aneroid barometer to encourage me to continue my passion. I was thrilled, to say the least. This, of course, made a good complement to my home weather station, as well as the cloud chart and other maps that hung on my bedroom walls.

When I went away to college, I never questioned what I was going to study. I started my college career at a two-year University of Wisconsin center in West Bend. There, I met Ed Dommisse, a professor in geography and geology, who shared my passion. From Professor Dommisse I took my first weather course. I had many important conversations with him about weather and data collection. I thought he was an anomaly, but after transferring to UW-Madison’s atmospheric and oceanic sciences program in 1990, I was thrilled to find a department full of professors with this passion.

While I achieved my degrees in atmospheric sciences, today I am not considered just a meteorologist or climatologist. I branched out into soil sciences, ecology, and agronomy, and found ways to connect what I knew about weather and climate to other disciplines. These connections are crucial in our study of the Yahara Watershed as part of the WSC project.

Making these connections didn’t come naturally, though. It was through the influence of one person in particular—my Ph.D. adviser, Dr. John Norman—that I was able to see beyond the meteorological measurements. Dr. Norman had a way of making complex things in nature seem even more complex. He also taught me how to collect good soil and plant data, an understanding of which, at the time, started to seem even more important, given their connection to the global climate system and their importance to life on our planet.

If you would have asked me in college where I saw myself 20 years later, I would not have said leading a team of scientists on a project to understand how climate and land use may alter ecosystem services in a 1000-squared-kilometer watershed with Madison at its epicenter. I probably would have said I would be a TV meteorologist in Rhinelander, WI.

Nonetheless, if you peer into my backyard today, you’ll see a setup that looks remarkably similar to what I saw as a grade school boy. With my wife’s blessing, our home serves as a research site for the WSC project. I have a personal weather station—granted it is a bit more sophisticated than what I had 30 years ago. It serves my curiosity about the weather and collects data for the WSC project and then some. For example, the station transmits its data wirelessly to a laptop in our home, which then uploads the data minute-by-minute to the Weather Underground website.

I also have soil temperature and moisture sensors buried in my backyard, which collect valuable information about how a low density, suburban backyard responds to rainfall and the placement of rain gutter downspouts. During the growing season, our WSC undergraduate and graduate students come to collect information on how healthy my backyard’s grass is and how it is responding to soil moisture levels. During the wintertime, a trail camera that is mounted on the weather station collects daily images of snow depth in our backyard.

Having a five-meter-high weather station in your backyard also draws the attention of your neighbors. It is certainly a unique conversation piece—after all, who doesn’t want to talk about the weather? But when they talk with me, they probably get more than they bargained for, especially if I get into where the water that runs off their yard eventually goes.

So, looking back, what goes on in my backyard today in support of WSC is not surprising, given my early interests and childhood backyard. I think you will find that many scientists have similar stories about how an early interest in science guided them to where they are today.

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