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@UofRMetStation: Bringing social media and science together

Submitted by: Kyle Hodder
Professor, Geography

When was the last time you used social media to monitor measurements of temperature, precipitation or wind speed? Although NASA’s Mars missions now routinely include a social media feed, most data collection in science does not. In an attempt to help fill this void, the Geography Department recently installed a meteorological (“weather”) station, nicknamed Zephyr, on the rooftop of the Classroom Building where a safe, outdoor teaching space already exists. The station monitors temperature, humidity, precipitation and wind speed/direction continuously, and posts detailed updates to a local website. Zephyr also posts a subset of the data feed autonomously to Twitter.

As an environmental scientist, I personally use Twitter to keep current on breaking events that I bring into the classroom; examples from last term included Hurricane Sandy, the US drought and Antarctic glacier calving. Twitter also allows me to follow conferences I cannot attend in-person, and informally network with colleagues in a more conversational format than email. I know we’ve all had a version of the experience attending a ‘mega-conference’ where colleagues, and thus potential networking opportunities, are lost in the stampede and crush of 23000 attendees, 14 000 posters and 7000 oral presentations – not to mention the environmental footprint of hundreds of conference attendees air and ground travel, water use, electricity and related costs (examples: 1,2,3). Although digital fora, including Twitter, cannot replace the direct-interaction that occurs at a scientific meeting, I have found it to be a very useful adjunct.

My personal use of Twitter made it natural to bring Zephyr online. I was inspired by the Twitter feed for the NASA Mars Curiosity operation as a means of outreach, but also as a vehicle for showing how much scientists enjoy – and have fun with – doing science. Using Curiosity as inspiration, I augment Zephyr’s automated Twitter feed with climate/weather educational tidbits, related science news and humour. As the person responsible for maintaining Zephyr, the use of Twitter also provides a side benefit: it allows me to check that the station is operational at-a-glance. One of the most rewarding aspects of the social media feed is the conversation that is possible with students, and the off-campus community. I regularly field questions about the nature of hydrology, weather and climate in our city, as well as our province, and each interaction is an opportunity to share knowledge beyond our campus. It is my hope the Twitter feed also allows Zephyr to provide a glimpse into the education that Geographers offer in the realm of hydrology, climate and weather sciences.

For students and the wider community, the Twitter feed provides campus-specific weather measurements. For example, during December 2012, temperatures measured on our campus were regularly greater than those measured at the airport (up to 8°C), while wind speed was typically much greater (up to 45 km/h) at the airport than on-campus. In homage to this ‘gentle wind’ theme, the moniker ‘Zephyr’ was selected as a nickname for the weather station, as it is a word used to describe a low velocity breeze. Naturally, during winter, the higher temperature and lower wind velocity also leads to a dramatic difference in windchill between the two locations. Readings from the airport are regularly quoted by media as if applicable throughout the City of Regina. The accuracy and precision of Environment Canada measurements follow well-defined global operating standards; however, they represent conditions at the airport – and the degree to which they represent conditions at other locations in and around Regina may vary.

Part of the difference in temperature, wind speed and windchill variables measured on campus, compared to the airport, is real in the sense that our campus is genuinely warmer, and experiences different wind conditions, than the airport. Part of this difference is also an artefact of the different exposure to elements at each station, including factors such as the elevation above ground, altered wind patterns by trees/buildings, waste heat exit from buildings and differences in monitoring equipment. Nevertheless, learning that our campus can be up to 8°C warmer at this time of year than reported at the airport might be welcome news for everyone!

For undergraduates in our Physical Geography program, the data stream from Zephyr provides a local example of the challenges embedded in any environmental monitoring campaign. Differences of only a few degrees can make a crucial difference in the timing of freezeup in Wascana Lake, for example. The data collected by Zephyr have already been put to use in undergraduate research projects.

Accurate measurement of weather-related variables can be easily accomplished; devices with impressive accuracy and precision are widely available and relatively inexpensive. However, part of the educational opportunity afforded by Zephyr includes an assessment of the spatial and temporal uncertainty embedded in any weather record collected at a fixed point.

If you want to follow Zephyr on Twitter, you can find us here:
A detailed web report of data collected by Zephyr can be found here:
My personal Twitter feed is available here:

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