A rain gauge (also known as a udometer or a pluviometer [fluviograph] or a cup) is a type of instrument used by meteorologists and hydrologists to gather and measure the amount of liquid precipitation (as opposed to solid precipitation that is measured by a snow gauge) over a set period of time.
Types of rain gauges include graduated cylinders, weighing gauges, tipping bucket gauges, and simple buried pit collectors. Each type has its advantages and disadvantages for collecting rain data.
Rain gauges have their limitations. Attempting to collect rain data in a hurricane can be nearly impossible and unreliable (even if the equipment survives) due to wind extremes. Also, rain gauges only indicate rainfall in a localized area. For virtually any gauge, drops will stick to the sides or funnel of the collecting device, such that amounts are very slightly underestimated, and those of .01 inches or .25 mm may be recorded as a trace.
Another problem encountered is when the temperature is close to or below freezing. Rain may fall on the funnel and freeze or snow may collect in the gauge and not permit any subsequent rain to pass through.
Rain gauge amounts are read either manually or by AWS (Automatic Weather Station). The frequency of readings will depend on the requirements of the collection agency. Some countries will supplement the paid weather observer with a network of volunteers to obtain precipitation data (and other types of weather) for sparsely populated areas.
In most cases the precipitation is not retained, however some stations do submit rainfall (and snowfall) for testing, which is done to obtain levels of pollutants.
Rain gauges, like most meteorological instruments, should be placed far enough away from structures and trees to ensure that any effects caused are minimised.
Some sources state that the Cheugugi of Korea was the world's first gauge, while other sources say that Jang Yeong Sil developed or refined an existing gauge.
The weighing-type recording gauge also contains a device to measure the quantity of chemicals contained in the location's atmosphere. This is extremely helpful for scientists studying the effects of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere and their effects on the levels of the acid rain.
The tipping bucket rain gauge consists of a large copper cylinder set into the ground. At the top of the cylinder is a funnel that collects and channels the precipitation. The precipitation falls onto one of two small buckets or levers which are balanced in same manner as a scale (or child's seesaw). After an amount of precipitation equal to 0.2 mm (0.007 in) falls the lever tips and an electrical signal is sent to the recorder. The recorder consists of a pen mounted on an arm attached to a geared wheel that moves once with each signal sent from the collector. When the wheel turns the pen arm moves either up or down leaving a trace on the graph and at the same time making a loud click. Each jump of the arm is sometimes referred to as a 'click' in reference to the noise. The chart is measured in 10 minute periods (vertical lines) and 0.4 mm (0.015 in) (horizontal lines) and rotates once every 24 hours and is powered by a clockwork motor that must be manually wound.
The tipping bucket rain gauge is not as accurate as the standard rain gauge because the rainfall may stop before the lever has tipped. When the next period of rain begins it may take no more than one or two drops to tip the lever. This would then indicate that 0.2 mm (0.007 in) has fallen when in fact only a minute amount has. Tipping buckets also tend to underestimate the amount of rainfall, particularly in snowfall and heavy rainfall events. The advantage of the tipping bucket rain gauge is that the character of the rain (light, medium or heavy) may be easily obtained. Rainfall character is decided by the total amount of rain that has fallen in a set period (usually 1 hour) and by counting the number of 'clicks' in a 10 minute period the observer can decide the character of the rain.
Modern tipping rain gauges consist of a plastic collector balanced over a pivot. When it tips, it actuates a switch (such as a reed switch) which is then electronically recorded or transmitted to a remote collection station.
Tipping gauges can also incorporate weighing gauges. In these gauges, a strain gauge is fixed to the collection bucket so that the exact rainfall can be read at any moment. Each time the collector tips, the strain gauge (weight sensor) is re-zeroed to null out any drift.
To measure the water equivalent of frozen precipitation, a tipping bucket may be heated to melt any ice and snow that is caught in its funnel. Without a heating mechanism, the funnel often becomes clogged during a frozen precipitation event, and thus no precipitation can be measured . The Automated Surface Observing System (ASOS) uses heated tipping buckets to measure precipitation
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