Challenge #2: Find a Way to Build Cheap Hail Pads

By Lily Bui
Jan 16, 2013 5:34 PMNov 12, 2019 5:09 AM


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DISCOVER Magazine is partnering with Instructables

 and SciStarter, an online citizen science community, to solve real problems facing researchers. The 

Citizen Science Contest is your opportunity to help millions of regular people contribute to scientific discovery. Prizes include a Celestron telescope, DISCOVER subscriptions, and time-lapse cameras! But hurry, the deadline is January 21, 2013.

We will present four specific challenges. Challenge # 1 invited you to create a cheap climate sensors for a microbe study. Presenting Challenge #2: Find a way to build cheap hail pads!

HABRDA / shutterstock

BackgroundThe Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow Network (CoCoRaHS) volunteers take and submit measurements of rain, hail, and snow precipitation. These observations are made available for use by the National Weather Service, meteorologists, emergency managers, and others.

The Problem: Hail pads are essential to CoCoRaHS's mission to measure, map, and study hail. Each pad consists of a 12" by 12" square of Styrofoam covered in Heavy Duty Aluminum foil. However, in recent years, these materials have tripled in cost, which has greatly reduced the number of hail pads that can be produced and distributed.

Hail pads reveal where hail falls---and at what intensity---during a hailstorm. Since hail is solid and often heavier than rain, it leaves dents or "footprints" on the surface of hail pads. Because hail falls over large distances, and the intensity/size of the hail varies over these distances, it wouldn't be helpful to simply study a small area during a hailstorm. In order to cover more distance, you need more hail pads.

The Challenge: Create a cheaper hail pad that can measure the number, size, and orientation of hailstones. If volunteers can find a way to construct hail pads from materials found around the house (or from very accessible, low-cost materials), they can potentially make multiple pads that can be put together to cover a larger area. After hail storms end, they can either be stored for future use, repurposed (since they're made from household materials), or recycled.

Here's what project director Nolan Doesken has to say:

Q: How can the DIY community help with this challenge?

Since CoCoRaHS began several years ago, the cost of the heavy-duty aluminum foil and the open core arts and crafts 12" x 12" x 1" squares of styrofoam that we use for measuring the dents from hail has tripled. It now costs well over $3 for each "pad" and that has greatly reduced the number of hail pads we can make and distribute. If anyone could come up with a do-it- yourself hail pad that was equally quantitative in documenting the number and size and orientation of hail stones while being inexpensive and easy to deploy, we're interested.

Q: Can you help explain how these footprints aid this project?

Hail pads do a marvelous job of showing the "foot prints" from hail. But hail falls infrequently and when it does its severity changes greatly over very short distances. You truly need thousands of hail pads (enough so you don't have to worry if they are all used and successfully retrieved) and people need to be comfortable viewing them as "important but disposable." If they (or some worthy equivalent) could be made really easily with materials that most anyone would have around the house, then I think we could engage many more people in helping us track and study hail.

Q: How do you translate hail imprints into usable data?

Up until now, we've collected the hail pads here and have a manual system where our students count the number and size of the stone indentations. Their results, along with a photo of each hail pad, are then posted on our site. An alternative approach that we've talked about is to try to use the eyes and intellects of volunteers and online images of the hail pads (so that all we need is photos rather than having all the pads shipped to us). We've tried using image-scanning technology, but the reflectivity of aluminum foil in combination with the complexity of dent patterns from overlapping craters has made that very difficult.

In sum, the biggest challenge for CoCoRaHs is finding a way to construct hail pads at an affordable cost. As Doesken mentions, the more hail pads volunteers can make, the more ground they can cover, and the more valuable the data would be for research. Help CoCoRaHs find a creative, DIY solution for this challenge so that volunteers anywhere can participate in this exciting project!

Got some ideas? Learn more about this challenge here.

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