Measuring Precipitation

How to Measure Precipitation

Measuring Rainfall
J A Hampton/ Hulton Archive/ Getty Images

Average annual precipitation is a vital piece of climatic data - one that is recorded through a variety of methods. Precipitation (which is most commonly rainfall but also includes snow, hail, sleet, and other forms of liquid and frozen water falling to the ground) is measured in units over a given time period.

The Measurement

In the United States, precipitation is commonly represented in inches per 24-hour period. This means that if one inch of rain fell in a 24-hour period and, theoretically, water wasn't absorbed by the ground nor did it flow downhill, after the storm there would be a layer of one inch of water covering the ground.

The low-tech method of measuring rainfall is to use a container with a flat bottom and straight sides (such as a cylindrical coffee can). While a coffee can will help you determine whether a storm dropped one or two inches of rain, it's difficult to measure small or accurate amounts of precipitation.

Rain Gauges

Both amateur and professional weather observers use more sophisticated instruments, known as rain gauges and tipping buckets, to more precisely measure precipitation.

Rain gauges often have wide openings at the top for rainfall. The rain falls and is funneled into a narrow tube, sometimes one-tenth the diameter of the top of the gauge. Since the tube is thinner than the top of the funnel, the units of measurement are further apart than they would be on a ruler and precise measuring to the one-hundredth (1/100 or .01) of an inch is possible.

When less than .01 inch of rain falls, that amount is known as a "trace" of rain.

A tipping bucket electronically records precipitation on a rotating drum or electronically. It has a funnel, like a simple rain gauge, but the funnel leads to two tiny "buckets." The two buckets are balanced (somewhat like a see-saw) and each holds .01 inch of water. When one bucket fills, it tips down and is emptied while the other bucket fills with rain water. Each tip of the buckets causes the device to record an increase of .01 inch of rain.

Annual Precipitation

A 30-year average of annual precipitation is used to determine the average annual precipitation for a specific place. Today, the amount of precipitation is monitored electronically and automatically by computer-controlled rain gauges at local weather and meteorological offices and remote sites around the world.

Where Do You Collect the Sample?

Wind, buildings, trees, topography, and other factors can modify the amount of precipitation that falls, so rainfall and snowfall tend to be measured away from obstructions. If you're placing a rain gauge in your backyard, make sure that it is not obstructed so that rain can fall directly into the rain gauge.

How Do You Convert Snowfall into Rainfall Amounts?

Snowfall is measured in two ways. The first is a simple measurement of the snow on the ground with a stick marked with units of measurement (like a yardstick). The second measurement determines the equivalent amount of water in a unit of snow.

To obtain this second measurement, the snow must be collected and melted into water. Generally, ten inches of snow produces one inch of water. However, it can take up to 30 inches of loose, fluffy snow or as little as two to four inches of wet, compact snow to produce an inch of water.

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Your Citation
Rosenberg, Matt. "Measuring Precipitation." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Rosenberg, Matt. (2020, August 27). Measuring Precipitation. Retrieved from Rosenberg, Matt. "Measuring Precipitation." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 30, 2023).