Cape Breton weather watchers tracking island's diverse microclimates
Network of 51 home weather stations gathering weather, climate data in places never observed before on island
Footprint is a CBC series examining climate change issues and solutions across Canada.
Jonathan Buffett bought his first home weather station when he was 15 with money he'd saved from his part-time job.
Now 28, the Sydney Mines, N.S., native owns about two-dozen weather stations.
"I think it's fascinating seeing the variation in wind and temperature and snow and rain across the island," said Buffett.
In an effort to understand why that's the case, Buffett has become the driving force behind the Cape Breton Weather Mesonet, a private, volunteer-run network of 51 stations across the island that gathers weather and climate data in places that have never been observed before.
As Buffett went through his secondary and post-secondary studies, he added a new station to his network every year or two, as he could afford it, installing them in locations that he was curious about.
He has a full-time job inspecting weather stations for Environment Canada, but the mesonet remains a labour of love to which he devotes almost of his free time.
"It's fun, and it's what I love to do," he said.
While Buffett has been the main driving force, the network has evolved into a community effort. The stations not owned by Buffett are what he calls partner stations, owned by armchair weather watchers like Pierre LeBlanc.
"It's a hobby," said LeBlanc. "I can't predict the weather. I have to check with Environment Canada. But I can tell what we had and see if they were right."
Buffett noticed the station in LeBlanc's front yard when driving by one day and asked him to join the network. It doesn't require much of LeBlanc because his weather station automatically uploads the data it collects to the manufacturer's server. Buffett can then download that data remotely, along with the data from the other 50 network stations, each of which is constantly reading temperature, humidity, air pressure, wind speed and direction, and rainfall amounts.
Buffett has recently started tracking water temperature too, installing gauges at two locations within the Bras d'Or Lake. He plans to add more, both in the lake and around the ocean coast.
His hope is that the accumulation of this data will be useful in understanding the effects of climate change on Cape Breton.
"We've got some stations around Chéticamp that are regularly through the winter ... recording wind gusts over 170-180 km/h, and people from that area are saying that it's happening far more frequently now," said Buffett.
He believes climate change may be causing winter storms to track further north.
With data, Buffett said they'll be able to verify whether that's true.
'An assembly of toys'
There are other weather mesonets around the world, but he said they tend to be funded by universities or governments. His is the only grassroots mesonet he's aware of.
"It's an assembly of toys in a way, but it's become something so much greater, so I was intrigued by that," said Randy Pointkoski, an engineer by trade who has taken a keen interest in Buffett's mesonet and its growth.
On World Oceans Day in June, Pointkoski organized a breakfast meeting, with the goal of helping Buffett develop a strategic plan for the mesonet.
'All sorts of microclimates'
About 30 people that included academics, municipal politicians, fisheries workers, gardeners and scientists gathered at a lakeside café for the informal think-tank session.
Fred Baechler, a hydrogeologist interested in the ground and surface water around Cape Breton, said Environment Canada does have some stations on the island that the citizen scientists make use of, but it's not enough.
"Because of our geology and our terrain, there are all sorts of microclimates that we don't quite understand yet," he said. "Jonathan's network allows us to get into the details of that, which helps us to better understand our water resources and manage them."
One key challenge facing mesonet users is how to sustain what Buffett has started.
"It's a governance and economic challenge," said marine ecologist Bruce Hatcher, who uses the mesonet data as part of his research.
"What do we do with this thing that's grown too big and too expensive in terms of time and money for one person's hobby? ... How do we find a way to support this and make sure it maintains the quality it has?"
Suggestions at the meeting included seeking not-for-profit status, and courting funding from industries that may benefit from its data, such as agricultural enterprises that could set up on the island.
Another challenge is what to do with all of the data Buffett is collecting.
For now, he archives it, and occasionally produces summaries of interesting weather events. A student from the Nova Scotia Community College has produced an interactive weather map that displays the real-time data online.
Buffett would like to learn more about programming to streamline the process of mining the data and presenting it in a way that's more useful and user-friendly.
"I think as time goes on, the value will become more apparent," he said. "It's still a very young network. But say after five or 10 years when we've had a chance to see some weather extremes move through, some storms, that's when the real value of that network will be there."