Of the Baker City Herald

Baker County residents may have weathered Sundays and Mondays snowstorms with aplomb, but one of the machines thats supposed to measure those storms severity came down with a nasty case of frostbite.

That machine is the rain gauge at the Baker City Municipal Airport.

Its basically a bucket thats designed to collect and measure not just rain, but all types of precipitation even snow, said Jim Shadwick, a spokesman for the National Weather Service office in Boise.

Heres how the gauge is supposed to work:

Measuring rain is relatively simple.

The drops drip into the bucket, and a sensor weighs the water and converts that figure into an equivalent depth for example, .33, or one-third of an inch.

When the temperature dips below 35 degrees a heater turns on, warming the bucket and melting any frozen precipitation into water that can then be weighed.

But sometimes the weather doesnt cooperate, Shadwick said.

If snow falls fast enough it can defeat the heater, clogging the bucket and allowing only a trickle of water or none at all to reach the sensor, he said.

Thats apparently what happened the past two days at the airport, Shadwick said.

On Sunday the rain gauge reported .01 of an inch of precipitation barely enough to moisten (or whiten) the ground.

Mondays total was .02.

In reality, of course, a foot or more of snow fell during those two days, and although the water content of snow varies widely depending on the temperature and other factors, its probable that the new snow at the airport contained at least half an inch of water.

Shadwick said the National Weather Service is accustomed to complaints about its automatic rain gauges.

Thats going to happen, he said. We have the same problem at all our mountain stations.

But this is the first winter that problem has affected Baker City.

In the past, people rather than electronics watched the weather at the airport. Working under a contract with the Federal Aviation Administration, the human weather observers melted snow and measured the depth of the water.

They also did something the machine cant plunge a yardstick into the snow and measure its depth.

But at the end of October the weather observers contract ended, and they were officially replaced by the National Weather Services machines called ASOS, short for Automated Surface Observation System.