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Picture Climate: What’s a USCRN Station?

Image of U.S. Climate Reference Network Station in Montrose, Colorado

U.S. Climate Reference Network Station in Montrose, Colorado

First implemented in 2002, the U.S. Climate Reference Network, or USCRN, is a sophisticated climate-observing network of 114 stations across the Lower 48, which NCEI specifically designed and deployed for quantifying climate change on a national scale. The USCRN is still expanding in Alaska with 13 out of 29 planned stations already in place. Two stations on the Big Island of Hawaii are also part of the network. But what exactly is a USCRN station and what all does one entail?

Every one of the USCRN observing sites is equipped with a standard set of sensors as well as a data logger, a satellite communications transmitter, and appropriate shielding and power infrastructure for making reliable observations. When NCEI deploys each site, we calibrate all of the sensors and put a maintenance plan into place that includes routine replacement of aging sensors and annual maintenance visits. NCEI monitors the performance of the entire network on a daily basis and addresses any problems as quickly as possible.

The USCRN instrument suite measures air temperature, precipitation, soil moisture and temperature, solar radiation, wind speed, surface temperature, and relative humidity in open, pristine environments around the country that are very likely to have stable land cover and usage conditions for years to come like National Parks and Wildlife Refuges. A few of the sensors at each site that take these observations include:

Platinum resistance thermometers to measure air temperature within fan aspirated shields that keep out the sun and draw in the air

Image of a platinum resistance thermometer

An all-weather weighing precipitation gauge with three devices weighing the bucket simultaneously

Image of an all-weather weighing precipitation gauge

A pyranometer to measure incoming solar radiation

Image of a silicon pyranometer

A three-cup anemometer to measure wind speed at the station height of 1.5 meters

Image of a three-cup anemometer

A precision infrared temperature sensor to measure ground surface temperature

Image of a precision infrared temperature sensor

Sensors to measure soil temperature and soil moisture at various depths

Image of soil sensors

Most of these sensors are placed on a 10-foot tall instrument tower on arms at 4.5 feet above the ground. Some locations, like those that experience high snowfall and snow depth, are given special consideration when placing the instruments to account for those conditions. Air temperature, precipitation, and soil moisture and temperature are all primary variables measured using triple redundancy. In other words, three separate sensors measure each of these variables to ensure an accurate and consistent observation. If one sensor fails, there are still two others to back it up without missing a beat until it can be repaired.

The data logger is also attached to the tower and it electronically stores five-minute and hourly observations. A geostationary satellite transmitter then sends the data to NCEI hourly, where they undergo a quality-control check and are placed online. The entire site design allows for future additions of new sensors on the tower without disrupting the physical site, ensuring the creation of an impeccable record of climate conditions in the United States far into the future.

See a diagram of the typical USCRN station configuration.

Typical USCRN station configuration diagram

For more information on how to access the USCRN data stored at NCEI, visit the USCRN Quality Controlled Datasets page.