The D.C. area has experienced a wide range of weather conditions this winter. As I write this, the rain we expected this morning has turned into a sleet and snow mix, while temperatures at the ground remain above freezing. Last Friday a cold front moved through, leaving me dressed for the above average warmth we had experienced during the day while out on the town in near-freezing conditions in the evening.

One of the limitations in forecast verification is the lack of sufficient observing systems. Let me back up a bit: it is difficult to determine how well the weather models and forecasters did in predicting a particular event without knowing for certain what happened at ground level. Meteorologists have methods of estimating precipitation with Doppler radar, but, because of the way radars operate, it is not particularly accurate. There are rain gauges throughout the country, but the network is not dense enough to record the small differences occurring a mile or two apart.

Social media is bringing a new era of weather reporting to meteorology. Many local newscasters ask not only for pictures of the weather occurring near you but for reports of what is occurring in your area right now. The Capital Weather Gang is a group of meteorologists that keeps the public up-to-date on the forecast, current conditions, as well as new information on big weather events like Hurricane Sandy. Earlier this winter, the information they compiled from various people on Twitter in real time helped me decide to telecommute rather than face the icy roads. Sure, I could look at the traffic reports or outside my window, but tweets like “I-270 southbound and the beltway were fine for my commute between Gaithersburg and McLean” are much more useful to me.

Other than Twitter and Facebook, the National Severe Storms Laboratory is making it easier than ever to make reports of precipitation at your location through their PING project. Using the internet or an app on your Apple or Android device, you can make reports about what is happening near you. If you use your smartphone, the app will use your GPS location to make the report as accurate as possible. You can use the same site to look at other reports near you!

Take advantage of the most recent advances in weather reporting to make your commute and outdoor plans less of a hassle; and while you’re using the service, you may as well contribute to it yourself!