Ice covers the fence in front of the White House March 2, 2015 in Washington, DC. (AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI)

When it rains at the White House, everyone will now know how much. And the reports may even enrich our knowledge of the region’s precipitation patterns.

Coinciding with its annual science fair Monday, the White House announced it has joined the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow Network (CoCoRaHS) – consisting of over 20,000 participants who serve as the largest source of daily precipitation data in the United States.

A rain gauge was installed in the First Lady’s Kitchen Garden last Friday.

“With a trained eye, you can spot the gauge along the fence on the south edge of the South Lawn,” said Nolan Doesken, CoCoRaHS founder and Colorado State climatologist. “It is perfectly installed (leveled and beveled) in an ideal location.”

Rainfall observations began this past weekend. Staff from the National Park Service (NPS) are responsible for taking the measurements and reporting back to the CoCoRaHS network, which is accessible to the public online.


Digital display of White House rain reporting location and observation from the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow (CoCoRaHS) network.

“[The White House] was monitoring rainfall previously and has an automated station,” said John McLaughlin, an education program manager at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), who trained NPS staff how to take rainfall measurements. “From what NPS told me, [the automated station] was used to inform watering of the White House lawn. With CoCoRaHS, they’re not only collecting [rainfall data], but sharing as part of a citizen science effort.”

The White House decided to participate in this program, in partnership with NPS and NOAA, to support the Federal Community of Practice for Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science, which is part of its Open Government Initiative.

“The [White House] Office of Science and Technology Policy took the lead in securing White House support and approvals and then worked with the NOAA Office of Education to get the gauge installed,” said Doesken.

“We’re demonstrating that citizen science can happen anywhere, even at the White House,” said Jenn Gustetic, Assistant Director for Open Innovation at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. “Citizen science empowers people and communities to directly participate in the scientific process outside of traditional classroom settings, and to help expand the frontiers of knowledge in ways that make a difference.”

NOAA’s McLaughlin said CocoRaHS data are used by the National Weather Service for storm analysis and calibration of radar and incorporated into National Climatic Data Center’s Global Historical Climate Network after a year of continuous measurements.

“This whole effort is part of NOAA’s effort to collaborate with private and public sectors to gather data to make our forecasts more accurate and precise,” McLaughlin said. “Citizen scientists help NOAA increase our environmental intelligence.”

Historically, the downtown Washington has been a black hole for weather observations.

Nolan Doesken, founder of the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow network (CoCoRaHS), holds up a rain gauge at the White House science fair. Nolan Doesken, founder of the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow network (CoCoRaHS), holds up a rain gauge at the White House science fair. (Darlene Cavalier)

“From a weather tracking perspective, we really needed data from D.C. to better document regional rainfall patterns (and snow),” Doesken said. “It’s very hard to find a good location for a rain gauge in congested D.C., and this site was perfect.”

Doesken and McLaughlin both said there are preliminary plans to install a snow measurement board at the White House next fall so that the White House can also report snow and ice.

At this time, there are no plans to report additional weather metrics from the White House, such as temperature and wind.  And Reagan National Airport will remain the official site of Washington, D.C. weather observations.

Even so, downtown snow reports would certainly be embraced by local weather enthusiasts who are critical of the fact the “official” Washington snowfall reports are taken at Reagan National Airport, located in Virginia, and are skeptical of how well they reflect actual amounts in the District.

“I’m thrilled to see the White House pick-up the ball,” said Robert Leffler, a retired National Weather Service meteorologist who has long advocated for Washington weather measurements in the District. “It will be nice to see how they come in with snowfall compared to the Reagan National Airport runway. People will be able to see how unrepresentative that site is.”

[Should Reagan National Airport remain Washington, D.C.’s official weather station?]

“It will be interesting to compare [the White House data] to the automated data at Reagan National and then the many CoCoRaHS volunteers in outlying areas,” added Doesken. “To me, though, this is also a tie back to the heritage of our country and the efforts of Thomas Jefferson and later Joseph Henry with the Smithsonian meteorological project – those early efforts to discover and document our nation’s climate resources and to advance weather forecasting with ‘citizen scientists’.”