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Why are mules carrying rain gauges into the Olympic Mountains? Science!

Why would a pack of mules be carrying weather equipment up into the Olympic National Park this October? It's all in the name of weather research!

NASA has undertaken an ambitious research project this fall and winter called OLYMPEX (Olympic Mountains Experiment) to cover the Olympic Peninsula -- even its most remote locations -- with all sorts of weather instrument goodies in an effort to help NASA calibrate some new advanced weather satellites.

The idea is "to connect the dots between what we're seeing on the surface and what we're seeing from space and what we're seeing in the clouds," said Walt Petersen, NASA's deputy project scientist for ground validation.

The satellites are designed to be able to determine how much rain and/or snow is falling in any given storm, and how much rainfall potential any storm might have.

"There are a lot of parts in the globe where there are no weather radars and no capability to put radars or a rain gauge in," Petersen said, adding that such places rely on satellite weather forecasting. So those satellites need to be able to accurately detect heavy tropical rain, light snowfall and other forms of precipitation. Such information would improve forecasting for floods and droughts as well as management of water resources.

But scientists need to check their calculations and account for the various terrain on Earth.

That's where the Olympic Peninsula is a perfect spot, says Lynn McMurdie, a UW researcher and one of the project's lead scientists. It not only takes the brunt of several storms during the fall and winter, but offers scientists to measure the effects of storms going from ocean to land, and then presents a dramatic topography shift from near sea level to 7,000-feet of Olympic Mountain peaks -- pretty much a microcosm of any conditions a storm would find in the mid-latitudes.

The project includes putting a new (temporary) weather radar on the North Coast near Tahola, as well as Canadian officials placing a temporary radar near Victoria to sample the storms as they dry out on the lee side of the Olympics. They are also borrowing a "Doppler on Wheels" -- a moveable radar typically used in storm chasing in the Midwest, but this time will be to place in the heart of approaching Pacific Storms (a much larger target.) There will also be several micro rain radars to measure falling precipitation and track the melting level. (Sadly, no "Doppler on Whales"...)

In addition, scientists will be placing several rain gauges around the Peninsula that will not only keep track of rain accumulations amid the complex terrain, but also track the type of precipitation (rain vs. snow and the drop/flake's diameter.)

Some of those rain gauges will be in placed deep into the Olympic National Park in places we've never measured rainfall before. The locations are so remote, they're in designated areas protected by the Wilderness Act, meaning they can't use any motorized vehicles to transport the equipment -- including helicopters. Their solution: Using mules as pack animals to get the equipement where it needs to go, as seen above.

For monitoring snowpack and snow storms, new cameras will be placed next to snow poles, also in areas never before tracked in the mountains.

When storms approach, NASA will use three research aircraft to fly at high altitudes to get real time measurements in the clouds (although one will fly primarily in the clouds to take precipitation measurements.)

These mountains of mountain weather data will then be collaborated with what the satellite measured making sure it's correctly calibrated.

"We're rooting for the rainy weather. We're excited and we're a little nervous," said Robert Houze, a UW professor of atmospheric sciences and principal investigator. "Even after years of preparing, you're still dependent on nature giving us what we want to look at."

But despite all this instrumentation, they need more help -- your help!

If you live on the Olympic Peninsula, or in the Chehalis River basin, you can be a big part of this project by volunteering to join CoCoRahs -- the volunteer rain spotter network (no, not the breakfast cereal). Those who participate are asked to go and get a $30 rain gauge and report your daily rainfall to their website -- it's really simple, I've done it myself. Researchers will then use that rainfall data to have an even better understanding of the microclimates of rainfall around here.

But even if you're not in that specific zone, you're more than welcome to sign up for CoCoRahs -- volunteers are needed everywhere! And teachers, NASA has a great page to present the OLYPEX project for your students, tailored to every grade level.

For More Information:

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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