A Weather Station With Wheels

How one researcher is using two wheels, a handlebar, and a whole mess of weather equipment to measure urban heat islands.

Riding a bike through Cleveland’s Lakefront State Park. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)

The problem with professional-grade weather equipment, says the University of Buffalo architecture professor Nicholas Rajkovich, is that it’s expensive. Though technology is getting cheaper all the time, amateurs can spend between $500 and $2,500 setting up informal monitoring systems in their backyards. Local governments often shell out tens of thousands of dollars. And that’s just for one weather station—setting up a network of research-grade weather stations across a city is a staggeringly expensive undertaking.

That cities’ surface, air, and soil temperatures are generally warmer than rural areas’ is uncontested—the heat-trapping materials used in urban construction, and dearth of surface water and vegetation nearly ensure it. But exactly what cities should be doing to combat site-specific urban heat islands is, well, hotly contested, which is where the real scientists come in.

In the summer of 2012, Rajkovich and his colleague, the University of Michigan’s Larissa Larsen, wanted to collect microclimate data on Cleveland and the wider Cuyahoga County in Ohio, where Rajkovich is working on a climate resilience project. But they didn’t want to set up thousands and thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment all over the city. Neither did they want to go the other typical data collection routes: mounting equipment on cars (which have to stay on roads and get caught in traffic) or on pushcarts (which a researcher would have to pull around by hand).

So why not mount $16,000 of weather equipment on a sturdy touring bike?

The idea is not quite unprecedented. A Virginia Tech researcher used a mobile, bicycle-based system to determine cyclists’ and pedestrians’ exposure to air pollution; Dutch scientists mounted a cargo bike with equipment while studying urbanization and thermal comfort in 2013; and Paul Coseo, now at the University of Arizona, tricked a tricycle out with weather apparatuses to study heat islands in Chicago for his 2013 dissertation. (“I’m actually starting to see more people using bicyclists to do research,” says Rajkovich). But the researchers say this is the first time a research-grade weather station has been plopped down on a bike, equipped to gather data on ground surface and air temperature, solar radiation, sky view, and more.

The research bicycle, including (1) a GPS system (2) equipment to measure relative humidity and air temperature (3) equipment to measure air temperature alone (4) camera to measure how much sky is visible at any given time (5) datalogger and equipment to measure barometric pressure (6) equipment to measure ground surface temperature (7) a four-component net radiometer, which measures radiation.

Of course, schlepping a 50-pound bicycle around in the dead heat of a Cleveland summer is not always the most pleasant experience. Rajkovich took pains to avoid heat stroke, and says stopping and starting proved particularly awkward. So did going up steep hills with a back-heavy bike full of expensive stuff.

The first time I stopped on a hill, I actually flipped over,” Rajkovich says. “I made sure all the equipment fell on top of me instead of hitting the pavement because I couldn’t afford to replace it.”

Still, as Rajkovich and his colleague Larsen wrote in a paper published last week in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, the bicycle was able to reach and take measurements in areas where cars or other equipment could not. And crucially, it could shift around Cuyahoga County constantly and quickly—or at the speed of a bicycle strapped with 50 pounds of equipment—taking readings all the way.

A 360-view of Nicholas Rajkovich on the weather bike, taken with an onboard camera. (Nicholas Rajkovich )

Rajkovich says he hopes his bike, and ones like it, can become the low-cost alternative for researchers and city governments hoping to learn more about urban ecology and meteorology on a budget. The trick is to get in shape before you climb aboard.

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