Ivory tower’s weather station

One night last winter, Joe Cottral, ’10, camped out on a cot in the attic-like Ryerson Astronomical Society office on Ryerson's fifth floor. He was the support team for a group of students who brought the RAS’s telescope to the middle of a field in central Illinois to watch an occultation, which Cottral describes as “one astronomical object passing in front of another astronomical object.” Cottral was on the computer that night, with electronic maps in front of him to guide the students in the field. His other task was to stay alert in case they needed assistance. I met him in that same office on Monday to discuss the latest RAS project: a new weather station.

The RAS is one of the oldest student groups at the University, with records dating to the 1950s and a telescope in use since the '30s. The club has an observatory on Ryerson's roof, an antique-looking transit telescope that may soon be moved to Crerar for display, and the weather station.

The weather station—a term used for any location where meteorological data is gathered—has been up for a few months. Last fall the Student Government Funding Committee gave the club $1,000 to buy a weather-gauging instrument, which RAS members installed themselves on a Ryerson turret. They filled an old computer box with cement to hold the station's base. The solar-powered station measures temperature, wind speed, and humidity, and it uploads automatically every minute or so to a remote server that graphs inches of rain per hour, solar radiation, and UV index. The server archives the information, which could be used for research.

All of the data, along with charts from the National Weather Service and other organizations, is available at the UChicago weather Web site. The next closest weather station, Cottral says, is at Midway airport, but the Ryerson one is more accurate for campus because the lake can dramatically change nearby weather. “We still rely on NOAA for forecasting,” Cottral says, referring to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, but he hopes that students will increasingly use the site to check current conditions—especially for planning a night to watch the stars at the club’s observatory.

Shira Tevah, '09

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Photos (left to right): Close-up of the new weather station; the Ryerson turret that holds the station; the transit telescope in the Ryerson Astronomical Society office.

Photo on far left by Joe Cottral, '10.

August 22, 2008