Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
The apparatus costs just $300, with replaceable parts that can easily be printed.
For a farmer in rural Zambia, knowing when it will rain and when the region is expected to get hit with an extended drought is crucial. The weather forecast helps decide, for example, how many crops to grow and what kind—maize, a Zambian staple that requires plenty of water, or beans, a more resilient crop that can withstand erratic weather.
Yet reliable weather forecasts are hard to come by in developing countries, in part because weather stations are few and far between. “Weather services in the developing part of the world are usually at the the bottom of the totem pole in government [in terms of] getting resources or any attention,” says Sezin Tokar, a hydrometeorologist at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
African countries in particular have, on average, eight times fewer ground stations than what the World Meteorological Organization recommends. Many of the ones that do exist are wearing out and need to be replaced, which is expensive. One weather station alone can run the government at least $10,000 to $20,000—and that doesn’t include maintenance costs.
So for the past three years, researchers at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research have been looking for a cheaper, functional alternatives—and they’ve turned to 3D-printing technology. With funding from USAID, the team recently installed five 3D-printed weather stations in Zambia, and are pilot-testing the machines with Zambia’s meteorological department.
Zambia’s meteorological department currently relies on fewer than a hundred stations to predict the forecast, says Martin Steinson, a mechanical engineer at UCAR and the co-leader of the project. That means not every region is covered.
The project, he adds, was the brainchild of his late colleague Kelly Sponberg, who had worked in Africa installing weather stations. “He'd been using low-end, not necessarily professional versions, and they worked pretty well for a while,” Steinson says. “But when they broke, it was impossible to repair them.”
At the time, 3D printing was still fairly new. So Sponberg thought, why not combine the technology with low-cost, but still accurate, sensors to build his own weather station? “The design isn’t anything radically different,” says Steinson. “It’s just how it’s made.”
Just like a standard station, UCAR’s stations have sensors that gauge rainfall, temperature, humidity, wind speed, and air pressure. Data is stored on a credit-card size chip. The frame for the sensors, which includes a funnel for collecting rain and a vented cylinder that acts as a radiation shield, is made with a 3D printer. A solar panel feeds energy to a battery to power the station. The total cost comes to about $300, and replacement parts can easily be printed.
The five stations are placed near radio towers, a rural hospital, and Zambia’s meteorological department, which will use the data to prepare the daily forecast and deliver it via radio. Steinson says his team has also created a website for locals to check the weather.
But this isn’t about simply giving more stations to Zambia, Steinson tells CityLab. The entire project—and a 3D printer—will be handed off to their Zambian partners, who are being trained on how to build the machines and how to read the data. The ultimate goal is for them to build and manage a network of more than a hundred stations, which will eventually give them enough data to predict weather patterns days in advance.
UCAR and USAID aren’t the only ones tackling the problem. An initiative called TAHMO aims to build a network of 20,000 ground weather stations across sub-Saharan Africa to track climate change. And in Zambia, the United Nations has supported the construction of 16 high-end versions.
There’s one big advantage to UCAR’s project, though. “If they make these [stations] themselves, they will understand them perfectly, and they’ll know what the possible problems are,” says Steinson. “The goal is to get them doing it themselves.” If that’s successful, he says, they plan on beginning a similar project on the island country of Curacao.
It’s not only farmers that these stations will help. In countries prone to natural disasters like flooding, getting early predictions of downpour and wind speeds to the public can make all the difference. “Most of the developing countries’ services have limited capacity, usually with simple information. But for early warnings, this information is not enough,” says Tokar. “If the forecast is not giving them the lead time [to plan or evacuate], then we’ve failed efforts to save lives.”
“This weather information is extremely critical in our lives, and sometimes we take it for granted in the U.S. because it's everywhere; it's on our cellphones, radios, and Facebook,” she adds.
Tozar recalls three women she met in Niger who made colorful bazin fabrics for a living: “They were listening [to the radio] for weather information almost every day to find that three-day window where they can dry their bazins.”