Rain gauge

Standard NOAA Rain Gauge

A rain gauge (also known as an udometer, pluviometer, or an ombrometer) is an instrument used by meteorologists and hydrologists to gather and measure the amount of liquid precipitation over a set period of time.


The first known rainfall records were kept by the Ancient Greeks, about 500 B.C.About 400 B.C. people in India also began to record rainfall.[1] The readings were correlated against expected growth, and used as a basis for land taxes. In the Arthashastra, used for example in Magadha, precise standards were set as to grain production. Each of the state storehouses were equipped with a rain gauge to classify land for taxation purposes.[2]

In 1441, the Cheugugi was invented during the reign of King Sejong the Great of the Joseon Dynasty in Korea as the first standardized rain gauge.[3][4][5] In 1662, Christopher Wren created the first tipping-bucket rain gauge in Britain in collaboration with Robert Hooke.[3] Hooke also designed a manual gauge with a funnel that made measurements throughout 1695.

It was Richard Towneley who was the first to make systematic rainfall measurements over a period of 15 years from 1677 to 1694, publishing his records in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Towneley called for more measurements elsewhere in the country to compare the rainfall in different regions,[6] although only William Derham appears to have taken up Towneley's challenge. They jointly published the rainfall measurements for Towneley Park and Upminster in Essex for the years 1697 to 1704.[7]

The naturalist Gilbert White took measurements to determine the mean rainfall from 1779 to 1786, although it was his brother in law, Thomas Barker who made regular and meticulous measurements for 59 years, recording temperature, wind, barometric pressure, rainfall and clouds. His meteorological records are a valuable resource for knowledge of the 18th century British climate. He was able to demonstrate that the average rainfall varied greatly from year to year with little discernible pattern.[8]

National coverage and modern gauges

George of the first systematic rainfall survey on a national basis.

The meteorologist George James Symons published the first annual volume of British Rainfall in 1860. This pioneering work contained rainfall records from 168 land stations in England and Wales. He was elected to the council of the British meteorological society in 1863 and made it his life's work to investigate rainfall within the British Isles. He set up a voluntary network of observers, who collected data which was returned to him for analysis. So successful was he in this object that by 1866 he was able to show results which gave a fair representation of the distribution of rainfall, and the number of recorders gradually increased until the last volume of British Rainfall which he lived to edit (that for 1899) contained figures from 3528 stations — 2894 in England and Wales, 446 in Scotland, and 188 in Ireland. He also collected old rain fall records going back over a hundred years. In 1870 he produced an account of rainfall in the British Isles starting in 1725.

Due to the ever-increasing numbers of observers, standardisation of the gauges became necessary. Symons began experimenting on new gauges in his own garden. He tried different models with variations in size, shape, and height. In 1863 he began collaboration with Colonel Michael Foster Ward from Calne, Wiltshire, who undertook more extensive investigations. By including Ward and various others around Britain, the investigations continued until 1890. The experiments were remarkable for their planning, execution, and drawing of conclusions. The results of these experiments led to the progressive adoption of the well known standard gauge, still used by the UK Meteorological Office today. Namely, one made of '...copper, with a five-inch funnel having its brass rim one foot above the ground...'[9]

Most rain gauges generally measure the precipitation in millimetres equivalent to litres per square metre. The level of rainfall is sometimes reported as inches or centimetres.

Rain gauge amounts are read either manually or by automatic weather station (AWS). The frequency of readings will depend on the requirements of the collection agency. Some countries will supplement the paid weather observer with a network of volunteers to obtain precipitation data (and other types of weather) for sparsely populated areas.

In most cases the precipitation is not retained, however some stations do submit rainfall (and snowfall) for testing, which is done to obtain levels of pollutants.

Rain gauges have their limitations. Attempting to collect rain data in a hurricane can be nearly impossible and unreliable (even if the equipment survives) due to wind extremes. Also, rain gauges only indicate rainfall in a localized area. For virtually any gauge, drops will stick to the sides or funnel of the collecting device, such that amounts are very slightly underestimated, and those of .01 inches or .25 mm may be recorded as a trace.

Another problem encountered is when the temperature is close to or below freezing. Rain may fall on the funnel and ice or snow may collect in the gauge, blocking subsequent rain.

Rain gauges should be placed in an open area where there are no obstacles, such as buildings or trees, to block the rain. This is also to prevent the water collected on the roofs of buildings or the leaves of trees from dripping into the rain gauge after a rain, resulting in inaccurate readings.


A self-recording rain gauge (interior)

Types of rain gauges include graduated cylinders, weighing gauges, tipping bucket gauges, and simple buried pit collectors. Each type has its advantages and disadvantages for collecting rain data.

Standard rain gauge

The standard NWS rain gauge, developed at the start of the 20th century, consists of a funnel emptying into a graduated cylinder, 2 cm in radius, which fits inside a larger container which is 20 cm in diameter and 50 cm tall. If the rainwater overflows the graduated inner cylinder, the larger outer container will catch it. When measurements are taken, the height of the water in the small graduated cylinder is measured, and the excess overflow in the large container is carefully poured into another graduated cylinder and measured to give the total rainfall. Sometimes a cone meter is used to prevent leakage that can result in alteration of the data. In locations using the metric system, the cylinder is usually marked in mm and will measure up to 250 millimetres (9.8 in) of rainfall. Each horizontal line on the cylinder is 0.5 millimetres (0.02 in). In areas using Imperial units each horizontal line represents 0.01 inch.

Pluviometer of intensities

Pluviometer of intensities (1921)

The pluviometer of intensities (or Jardi's pluviometer) is a tool that measures the average intensity of rainfall in a certain interval of time. It was initially designed to record the rainfall regime in Catalonia but eventually spread globally throughout the world.[10]

It employs the principle of feedback .. the incoming water pushes the buoy upwards , making the lower "adjusting conic needle" to let pass the same amount of water that enters into the container, this way.. the needle records on the drum the amount of water flowing through it at every moment -in mm of rainfall per square-meter

It consists of a rotating drum that rotates at constant speed , this drum drags a graduate sheet of cardboard, which has the time at the abscissa while the y axis indicates the height of rainfall in mm of rain. This height is recorded with a pen that moves vertically, driven by a buoy, marking on the paper the rainfall over the time (the cardboard sheet is usually for one day).

While the rain falls, the water collected by the funnel falls into the container and raises the buoy ... , that makes the pen arm raising in the vertical axis marking the cardboard accordingly. If the rainfall does not vary, the water level in the container remains constant, and while the drum rotates, the pen's mark it's more or less a horizontal line, proportional to the amount of water that is falling. When the pen reaches the top edge of the recording paper, it means that the buoy is "up high in the tank" leaving the tip of the conic needle in a way that uncovers the regulating hole (i.e. the maximum flow that the apparatus is able to record) . If the rain suddenly decreases, making the container -as it empties- to quickly lower the buoy, that movement corresponds to a steep slope line that can reach the bottom of the recorded cardboard, if it stops raining.

The pluviometer of intensities allowed to record the precipitation over the time and the years, particularly in Barcelona (95 years), apart from many other places around the world, such as Hong-Kong.[10][11]

Weighing precipitation gauge

A weighing-type precipitation gauge consists of a storage bin, which is weighed to record the mass. Certain models measure the mass using a pen on a rotating drum, or by using a vibrating wire attached to a data logger. The advantages of this type of gauge over tipping buckets are that it does not underestimate intense rain, and it can measure other forms of precipitation, including rain, hail and snow. These gauges are, however, more expensive and require more maintenance than tipping bucket gauges.

The weighing-type recording gauge may also contain a device to measure the quantity of chemicals contained in the location's atmosphere. This is extremely helpful for scientists studying the effects of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere and their effects on the levels of the acid rain. Some Automated Surface Observing System (ASOS) units use an automated weighing gauge called the AWPAG (All Weather Precipitation Accumulation Gauge).

Tipping bucket rain gauge

The interior of a tipping bucket rain gauge

The tipping bucket rain gauge consists of a funnel that collects and channels the precipitation into a small seesaw-like container. After a pre-set amount of precipitation falls, the lever tips, dumping the collected water and sending an electrical signal. An old-style recording device may consist of a pen mounted on an arm attached to a geared wheel that moves once with each signal sent from the collector. In this design, the wheel turns the pen arm moves either up or down leaving a trace on the graph and at the same time making a loud click. Each jump of the arm is sometimes referred to as a 'click' in reference to the noise. The chart is measured in 10-minute periods (vertical lines) and 0.4 mm (0.015 in) (horizontal lines) and rotates once every 24 hours and is powered by a clockwork motor that must be manually wound.

The exterior of a tipping bucket rain gauge

The tipping bucket rain gauge is not as accurate as the standard rain gauge because the rainfall may stop before the lever has tipped. When the next period of rain begins it may take no more than one or two drops to tip the lever. This would then indicate that pre-set amount has fallen when in fact only a fraction of that amount has actually fallen. Tipping buckets also tend to underestimate the amount of rainfall, particularly in snowfall and heavy rainfall events.[12][13] The advantage of the tipping bucket rain gauge is that the character of the rain (light, medium, or heavy) may be easily obtained. Rainfall character is decided by the total amount of rain that has fallen in a set period (usually 1 hour) and by counting the number of 'clicks' in a 10-minute period the observer can decide the character of the rain. Correction algorithms can be applied to the data as an accepted method of correcting the data for high level rainfall intensity amounts.

Tipping bucket rain gauge recorder
Close up of a tipping bucket rain gauge recorder chart

Modern tipping rain gauges consist of a plastic collector balanced over a pivot. When it tips, it actuates a switch (such as a reed switch) which is then electronically recorded or transmitted to a remote collection station.

Tipping gauges can also incorporate weighing gauges. In these gauges, a strain gauge is fixed to the collection bucket so that the exact rainfall can be read at any moment. Each time the collector tips, the strain gauge (weight sensor) is re-zeroed to null out any drift.

To measure the water equivalent of frozen precipitation, a tipping bucket may be heated to melt any ice and snow that is caught in its funnel. Without a heating mechanism, the funnel often becomes clogged during a frozen precipitation event, and thus no precipitation can be measured . Many Automated Surface Observing System (ASOS) units use heated tipping buckets to measure precipitation [14]

Optical rain gauge

These have a row of collection funnels. In an enclosed space below each is a laser diode and a photo transistor detector. When enough water is collected to make a single drop, it drops from the bottom, falling into the laser beam path. The sensor is set at right angles to the laser so that enough light is scattered to be detected as a sudden flash of light. The flashes from these photo detectors are then read and transmitted or recorded.

Acoustic rain gauge

The acoustic disdrometer is an acoustic rain gauge. Also referred to as a hydrophone, it is able to sense the sound signatures for each drop size as rain strikes a water surface within the gauge. Since each sound signature is unique, it is possible to invert the underwater sound field to estimate the drop-size distribution within the rain. Selected moments of the drop-size distribution yield rainfall rate, rainfall accumulation, and other rainfall properties.[15]

See also


  1. Ian Strangeways, A History of rain gauges, TerraData, 2010
  2. Kosambi (1982) The Culture and Civilization of Ancient India in Historical Outline, p. 153, ISBN 978-0-7069-1399-6
  3. 1 2 Weathershack history on rain gauge
  4. About.com Inventors
  5. 측우기 測雨器, Naver encyclopedia
  6. Towneley R. (1694), Philosophical Transactions Vol. 18 p. 52
  7. Derham, W and Towneley, R (1704) Philosophical Transactions (1683-1775), Volume 24, pp. 1878-881.
  8. Ian Strangeways. "A History of Raingauges" (PDF).
  9. A short history of the British Rainfall Organisation by DE Pedgley, Sept 2002, published by The Royal Meteorological Society ISBN 0-948090-21-9
  10. 1 2 Water Resources Series. United Nations. 1967. Retrieved 23 October 2011.
  11. Hong Kong; Great Britain. Foreign and Commonwealth Office (1974). Jardi report Workman Chen, Hong Kong (PDF). HMSO. Retrieved 23 October 2011. Cite uses deprecated parameter |coauthors= (help)
  12. Groisman, P.Y. (1994): "The Accuracy of United States Precipitation Data" Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 75(2): 215–227.
  13. AgriMet Precipitation Measurements
  14. "The Tipping Bucket Rain Gauge." National Weather Service.
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