Students Study the Physics in the Forecast

North Park University has its own weather station

CHICAGO (September 11, 2009) – A person designing a building in North Park University’s neighborhood needed data on wind speed in the area, but such localized information is not available from the National Weather Service. So he turned to the University’s Physics Department, which operates its own weather station.

The station has been collecting and storing data since 2007. The designer could have learned, for example, that at 4 a.m. on December 1, 2007, the top wind speed was 4 mph.

Physics professor Johnny Lin came up with the idea for the station while developing a Climate Dynamics class. The unit was installed on the roof of the Helwig Recreation Center in 2007.

The station measures a variety of data. As this is being written, the website shows that the temperature is 71.2 degrees, the humidity level is 62 percent, the average wind speed is 5 mph, the estimated cumulous base is 3,124 ft., and the barometer remains at 30.119 in.

According to the site, the forecast is “increasing clouds with little temperature change—precipitation possible within 24 to 48 hours.” Lin cautions, however, that the station is generally best at forecasting the next 12 hours.

The solar-powered station is a Vantage Pro2, which Lin describes as a high-end consumer model. The unit atop Helwig transmits the data through a repeater station in Carlson Tower, which forwards it to a computer in Lin’s office. That computer automatically updates the information and posts it online every five minutes.

The information is displayed graphically as charts, and the site also includes links to other weather-related sites and definitions of various terms.

Although the station gives more precise information for the immediate area than is possible by the National Weather Service, Lin says the main purpose for the station is to help students. “The goal is to bring the whole idea of data collection to everyday life,” he explains. As students study the data, they learn how the various weather elements correlate and interact, Lin says.

“Oftentimes the things you do in the sciences seem opaque to others who are not science majors,” he notes. The station is a practical way of making science more accessible.