Software Defined Radio Reading of a Personal Weather Station

I am very lucky to be involved in the Sage Cyberinfrastructure project where I am kind of acting as “Chief Science Evangelist”. Basically I help motivate the hardware and software engineering with real world science use cases. Discussions with friends like Profs.

Pi4 with the RTL-SDR reading 915MHz data. Pi3 syncing via scp and displaying on UnicornHat-HD

Eric Brunning and Tim Logan have led me to Lightning detection as an interesting problem and several folks in the team are big fans of Software Defined Radios. So I purchased one (and then three more!) and started playing. Several months ago I purchased ($169) an Ambient W2902B personal weather station. It sends signals to a base station via PCM @ 915MHz. The base station then sends data to ambient you can download via an API. Issue is you can only download 1 minute data and the head unit transmits every 16s. I was ok with that for the price. Well, enter the software defined radio! I knew the RTL-SDR 2832U unit I have can tune into 915MHz.. And looking on gqrx I cold see the pulses so I thought I could write some code to decode the data..

Output from rtl_433. Note my Ambient 2903B tags itself as BOTH fineoffset-WH24 and 65B

Well cool thing is I did not have to! As I always say to my students: Google that! I did and found this excellent blog. It was as simple as a apt-get rtl-433 or, on the Raspberry Pi4 compiling from source and you have a pulse code decoder that can read everything from a weather station to a tire pressure gauge in your car. I then simply set it to run with a nohup on my Raspberry Pi4 and save JSONs to a file. I wrote some simple code in Python using ACT (a module that builds on xarray) to visualize.. You can see so much more in the 16s data! Like the turbulence reflected in dewpoint and temperature data when the boundary layer builds. Now I want to include a Software Defined Radio in every Sage node so we can connect instruments wirelessly using the 915 and 433MHz standards. More on lightning detection later!

Bingo! My own weather data saved and plotted without using a 3rd party API.

Always Take The Weather With You: Part Two

Redeye flights are hard.

It has been a while since my last update. Things got kinda crazy as I will detail below. After a nice day enjoying the warm weather in Anchorage (knowing this will be our warmest weather for a while) we boarded out 11:35pm redeye to Denver. I don’t like red-eyes and avoid them whenever possible. It was not possible in this case and I spent the flight watching Crazy Rich Asians and trying to get any sleep I can, which was about two. After the 5 1/2 hour flight we are back in Denver where we were greeted with a glorious sunrise. The flight back to Chicago was on one of my favorite planes, the 757-300. This is the largest narrow-body (single aisle) United flies. Its like the engineers turned it up to 11 :).

I still find the sun to be novel! Amazing what a week in the dark does.

The flight from Denver was smooth and early, all you can ask for! We came in over the lake which had developed an impressive layer of ice since Left. Quick Uber ride home and the rest of the day was left to recovery. I managed to go for a walk and survived with only a 2 hour nap. We had a nice little snow system due in the area. It was one of the quick but impactful systems which produced snowfall rates up to 2 inches an hour. We got about 5 inches out of the system. I love it when kids walk to School so I am militant about clearing snow, I do about 20 houses worth of pavement, right up to where Isabelle crosses the road.

WBEZ wants to know about how I dealt with the cold in Utqiagvik. Why? Because that cold was coming to town.

After clearing on Monday morning I settled in to get some work done and, since I had missed several weekend days, get in some home brewing! This is where things got… interesting. I received an email from WBEZ’s morning Shift’s senior producer. Seems they found my Blog… Yes… THIS blog! Given that, as I said in the previous entry, we were basically riding the jet-stream back to Chicago along with a dangerous cold system, WBEZ wanted to discuss this cold, the Meteorology behind it and how we dressed for the cold in Utqiagvik, Alaska. I had done quite a few media engagements, mainly stemming from an award I received from Popular Science Magazine back in 2013. But I was yet to head into the studio to do it in person. After clearing it with our public relations team at Argonne (who are amazing and very helpful) I started writing facts and figures down about the weather we faced in Utqiagvik, what was coming to Chicago and the historical context.

As a WBEZ supporter and fan I can not tell you how exciting this was.

The interview was scheduled to be in the 9am hour so I made sure I took one Metra earlier than I needed. The temperature was already crashing and trains in Chicago do not cope so well with the cold. After an Uber from Union station this NPR Geek arrived in Public Radio Nirvana, WBEZ studios on Navy Pier. After chatting to Daniel, another producer, Meha shepherded me into the studio. Jenn White, host of the Morning Shift, was seated at a table and I could only hear her speaking.. Fortunately Meha pointed out I needed to put on the headphones to hear the radio show itself.

Wearing all my gear from Alaska in Chicago.. ALL OF IT.

The radio show was a lot of fun. Due to working with minors I could not talk about our work with the students at The Middle School and give the team due credit but we had a lot of fun talking jet streams, weather, Utqiagvik and the cold spell about to grip my adopted city of Chicago. You can find a write up of the story here. One correction though, I did not teach, The Teacher (I can not use his name) was the teacher and Meridith and John were the curriculum team (I think I have made that clear in my blog). But, everyone wants to talk about the weather and, well, I can talk. I hope the education team gets a chance to talk all about their amazing research once the work is done and published. This is my final post on my trip north! Now back to reality, the wonderful reality of an amazing job working for ARM, Argonne and the United States Department of Energy and doing amazing open science.

A Day In The Largest City In The 49th State

This is what a Man who has not seen the sun for a week looks like when he sees the sun.

We are homeward bound. We decided to have a one day buffer in Anchorage on our way back from Utqiagvik as we may have had some need to meet with Alaskan State officials and travel from the Great White can be plagued by weather delays. In the end neither materialized so we were free to spend our Saturday as our own! And boy did we get lucky. It topped out at 33F while Chicago barely topped 12F. I managed to sleep in to 6am, an accomplishment since I had been averaging between 4 and 5. Kinda stuck on Midwest time and the lack of diurnal cycle (sun cycles) means the time you get out of bed is somewhat academic.

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My route via Strava.

The thing I was, without a doubt, was seeing the sun. And the forecast was for above freezing temperatures and partly sunny. So after working on the previous blog post I grabbed an Uber and headed downtown (at 8…). I pulled up at the eclectic Side Street Espresso and had a coffee and Muffin. From there I struck out aiming to hit the Tony Knowles Coastal TrailThis trail is a gem in the crown of Anchorage! 


The trail was very icy but the scenery was stunning. I first noticed the sun as it was hitting the banks on the opposite side of the ice laden bay. The trail took a path inland to the Westchester Lagoon which was completely iced over.. There I was greeted with the amazing glow of the Sun. It was here I realized I was not made to live in the north. A visit is amazing but the sun warms and rejuvenates!

Anchorage framed by the Chugach Mountain Range.

The light, the wind and the temperature were just perfect for a photographic expedition. During my postgraduate and postdoctoral years I was passionate about my photography but I kind of let it go once I started at Argonne.

Reflecting on cloud physics.

The trip to a truly unique place (Utquigvik) motivated me to get out my old D200 body, clean it up, by a new waking around lens (18-200 DX VR, very happy!). Good news is I was not as rust as I thought! And better (and self affirming) news is my expensive camera and gear still takes a better photo than my iPhone X :). Even better, as well as providing a much needed leg stretching exercise (to keep my weight loss on track for the Barry Roubaix) the trail provided amazing view back on the city perfect for using a telephoto lens to provide perspective to the background Chugach Mountain Range.

I love planes.

But that is not the thing that kept me walking.. The trail also hugs the end of the main runway of the Ted Stevens Anchorage airport. The airport is strangely busy with heavy 747 freight planes. And the trail provides a unique vantage point to watch departing flights over the bay. I have a first class honors degree in Advanced Physics, a PhD in physical sciences and a graduate diploma in meteorology and I still marvel at these metal machines lumbering into the skies.

Water and ice shapes the land of Alaska and the peoples, native and transplanted, work with the water and ice

5 1/2 miles of walking done, time for some beer, some food and a fair degree of waiting until our 11:30 flight to Denver and then to Chicago. I have found my time in the 49th state of the union, Alaska, to be profoundly formative. I will reflect on this in full in future posts but, in short, I think no other place sees such influence by and on the atmosphere I study. Be it the snow in Anchorage or the sea ice the Iñupiat hunt on in Utqiagvik, water and ice shapes the land of Alaska and the peoples, native and transplanted, work with the water and ice. I’ll be back to this land.

Our Last Day In The Great White

Our morning walks became a ritual.

Yesterday was our last day in Utqiagvik Alaska! It has become successively both warmer and windier as our week progressed. This was interesting as the wind chill remained about the same at around -30F. So while the start of the week was all about layers and insulation the end was about exposed skin minimization and that all important shell layer. We started with what has become a ritual and a act of rebellion against the elements: Walking to School.

One of the Iñupiat values is Humor. Janet and I found it in this sign.

I did not expect to be able to do so much walking in Utqiagvik but with the right gear walking was not only possible but helped fight against the cabin fever of the near endless night. And there was something so wonderfully ridiculous about putting on 5 layers of clothing to avoid a 4 minute cab ride! Our last day came with a sense of occasion. Not just because we were heading home but also because The Teacher’s class was hitting a key point in the Curriculum that Meridith and John wrote. Today we saw more “Ah ha!” moments that we saw all week. The Teacher was working with the students to identify and describe all the Computational Thinking (CT) skills they had developed this week: Aggregation, abstraction and pattern recognition. In addition one CT tool was discussed: Interpolation. When you think of learning methods in a College course you get introduced to the name, then the concept/math and then the application.

The students own descriptions of CT Skills they used in Precipitating Change.

The Precipitating Change curriculum turns this on its head. Students are introduced to the data first, allowed to explore and interact, develop the skills and then introduced to the terms. This makes these complex terms much less daunting, as The Teacher will say: “You just did that!”. I have never seen a student at any level excitedly call out INTERPOLATION with a huge grin on her face. Let alone describe it as “Predicting a value by the values around it”. I can learn a lot about scientific communications from these 14 year olds from the Northern-most outpost of the United States.

Janet discussing her observations with the team.

The last class was, without any doubt, the most amazing. The 8th period class has made the most progress of any class however, like in any school, students progress at different rates. The amazing aspect of this class was the participation across the whole spectrum of learning styles. All students were genuinely proud of the fact they were carrying out these complex scientific CT tasks. One data point does not make a trend, but this is a data point none-the-less. After a debrief with The Teacher and an assertion that this is just the start of a long collaboration and relationship between the team at Concord, Argonne and Millersville and The Middle School, we walked back to the hotel.

The totality of the Wiley Post – Will Rogers Memorial Airport in Utqiagvik.

The always exciting act of boarding from the tarmac/snowpack.

After near ceremonial packing of the warmest of our warm gear into our checked luggage we took the hotel shuttle to the tiny Utqiagvik airport. The airport is a one room affair with adjacent check in, security and gate in one. A quick final embrace of the Utqiagvik air and we were on board and at the start of our trek South-East to the Midwest where, Ironically, we would meet the very same airmass we experienced in the North with temperatures hovering near 0F.


Learning On Ice

Students interpolating data.

Day number four in the classroom saw students continue to develop skills in filling in data gaps and pattern recognition. We started the day with a walk to school, it was much warmer today, -10F but the wind was picking up and the snow was starting to blow, so wind chill was much more like -30F. But the great thing about wind chill is it is easier to defeat with the right gear, specifically a good shell layer. Yes, I am feeling some nice love for my gear right now!

Meridith and John.

We had a nice 2.5 hour break in our schedule at the school and hearing how vital the sea ice is to the local community and that they were already venturing out onto the ice we decided to go, very carefully, for a very short walk on some of the ice closest to shore. Note this was on our own time. It was one of the most surreal experiences I have ever had.

It was hard to judge distances but the ice was broken about 1km out exposing the ocean. Where the warm water was open to the air it was steaming and creating a fog. Due to the North East winds it was being blown along the coast not onto it. The ice was full of structure, ridges, cracks and mounds. It was VERY solid! Following our little trip we walked back to the School for afternoon classes.

Cracking up!

We had the first class that completed the color map of temperatures and were putting terms to the activities they carried out: Aggregation, Abstraction and Pattern Recognition.I was impressed to see how many students saw that the data was showing the progression of a cold change. The students showed an ability to abstract the patterns they were seeing. Basically, students are already being introduced to the concept of frames of reference! We finished the day with dinner at a Japanese restaurant. Another homely affair. It seems like many houses have business attached, even a little coffee that seems to do a brisk business all day long in the middle of winter.  Like the crazy tourists we are we walked in the blowing snow and wind enjoying the surreal landscape of Utqiagvik!

seaicepano copy
The surreal world of the ice

The Sun Has Come Back To The Class

The sun came up for the first time this year.

Wednesday saw our third day at the school. And it was the first time of year the sun came fully over the horizon (we had a long discussion on what “the sun coming up” meant). Again I walked to the School, for no other reason than to say I did. It was -27c but with a bit of a breeze blowing it was -34c windchill. Gear worked well but eyelashes iced up again.. Fun! Walter was kind enough to give us a failed radiosonde unit which The Teacher asked me to present to the class. I was a bit rough to begin with but after repeating it five times I got good at using it to get the students to think of the atmosphere in three dimensions.

It also allowed me to link the ARM site to them and their community and to underline the global importance of the work done there. I am hoping Argonne and ARM can build on the connections we are making in this community. Today’s lesson was about abstraction. The students had a series of numbers on a grid and were asked to see if they saw a pattern. Most could not which allowed the teacher to prompt “how can we make the patterns easier to see”. Each of the five classes arrived at the conclusion (with varying speed) that they needed to color code the numbers.

And with that 8th graders were being taught about scientific visualization! We also had the privilege of hearing more about Kevin’s time on the ice with the people of Utqiagvik.
Ice that piles up with an onshore wind (see a previous post) actually anchors this ice to shore. This is vital for the hunters in the town and also for wildlife. It was great seeing the sun come back! We even stepped outside at 1:30pm (just after sunrise) to use the light to get a group shot. School had early dismissal so we had a great hour at the  Iñupiat Heritage Center. It was great seeing how the four whaling families had passed down traditions. In fact a lot of the last names were very familiar including a previously mentioned site operator!

Visiting The ARM Site in Utqiagvik

The team in front of the Barrow Arctic Research Consortium building where the X-Band Scanning ARM Precipitation Radar is hosted.

It was a strange twist of fate that Concord ended up building a relationship with a teacher who is based on the North Slope. One of the key sites for the ARM Research Facility is also located in Utqiagvik. Given the spareness of observations in the Arctic and given the key interplay between ice, ocean clouds and climate Utqiagvik is an ideal location for furthering DoE ARM’s mission of improving the understanding and representation, in climate and earth system models, of clouds and aerosols as well as their interactions and coupling with the Earth’s surface. The team at Sandia helped us work with Walter Brower, who operates the site (which is run by a native owned corporation) to arrange a site tour for myself and my education research colleagues. I have visited the ARM site in Oklahoma before, which is a sprawling complex with many staff. I was struck how Walter and one a few other  people keep this key facility ship shape! One instrument I really wanted to see is the X-Band radar (X-SAPR) which I have responsibility, in my role as Translator, for maximizing the science from (through software, retrievals and helping PIs. Great to see the work the radar mentor team, led by Nitin Bharadwaj, had put into this unique instrument.

It is like stepping foot onto another planet. No wonder ARM users love observations from Utqiagvik!

After seeing the X-SAPR Walter took us on a drive past the maintenance facilities which are located in an area run by the Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corporation where there is a college specifically designed to meet the needs of the community, and out into the great white expanse of the frozen Tundra.  The site itself is a few miles out of town (on a road the team must clear and keep open themselves!). And this is the beauty of it: You have an expanse of ice, free of structures which can create issues, perfect representation of a “grid cell” of an atmospheric simulation over an expanse of ice. Perfect for testing science questions aligned with ARM’s mission. The main instrumentation is on the Great White platform, an otherworldly structure anchored in the permafrost with every instrument conceivable!

Inside the Great White with the Micro Pulse LIDAR which detects cloud and aerosol (particulate matter) layers.

Heading to the warmth inside the Great White enclosure we saw the modern instrumentation and cyber infrastructure needed to get the massive amounts of data on the atmospheric column back to the ARM Data Center.

The Balloon Borne Sounding System (BBSS) at the Great White of ARM’s Utqiagvik site.

Walter stepped us through a number of measurements being taken over the site. Some of the most seemingly mundane but vital to the long term mission of ARM are the key components of Meteorology (which The Teacher is teaching the middle school students: Temperature, winds and moisture). ARM has a 40 meter high tower with probes at 2, 10, 20 and 40 meters so see how the atmosphere is “layered” close to the surface. As I mentioned in a previous post, the layering is completely different to the ARM site in Oklahoma due to the lack of solar heating. And that brings me to one more instrument, the balloon borne sounding! It sounds simple but is hard to achieve, attach a sensor to a balloon, let it fly through the sky, and transmit measurements back to the site via UHF. These balloons are launched at 5 and 17 UTC (8am and 8pm Local) and compliment the NWS soundings from the airport at 0 and 12 UTC and they all are used to spin up the weather simulations that are used in your local forecast.. So next time you hear about a polar outbreak on the 6 o’clock news thank, but do not blame, the ARM Research Facility in Utqiagvik! Out heartfelt thanks to Walter who took so much time to show us around and for being so generous with his local knowledge. Site operators like Walter make grand scale science in the national interest possible!

Just a Walk To And From School

Your’s Truly walking to School

After hearing that the teacher we are working with, walks to and from school I decided to give it a shot this morning! And it was a nice mild one for it at only -25ºc (-13F). The route is 0.8 miles, but I took a wrong turn and ended up walking to the east of the School. That was a little intimidating as it became a little more rural and polar bears were foremost in my mind (my heart rate was nice and high for the walk). In the end I did just over a mile on Strava. A nice way to start the day. The only real failure was not equipment, it was, as my eyes watered a bit in the cold, my eyelashes developed quite the ice accumulation making it hard to blink.

What I assume is the northernmost US Post office on Earth.

We observed one class in the morning and had some discussions on how the students were learning pattern recognition. Since I had so much fun walking to School (beats the hotel treadmill) I decided to do a repeat performance and walk home! The whole thing seems so novel to a lower 48 ‘er like me but folks here were going on like normal, kids getting off the school bus. We had freezing fog today so even at 1:30pm the light was dull. But, good news, THE SUN COMES BACK TOMORROW! I hope the fog clears enough for us to see it!

Day One at The Middle School

Our first day started (can’t use the word dawned) clear and cold! -26ºc which was nice and bracing as we waited for our cab at the hotel. We drove through the frost streets of Utqiagvik to the the local Middle School. The School’s namesake was a born and raised in Utqiagvik (named Barrow back then) and led the efforts to found the North Slope Borough.  This essentially (from my reading) put the power of governing into the hands of the native Iñupiat people (I hope I am not messing up the history too much!).

John helping The Teacher set up the classroom.

We were welcomed warmly by the office staff and signed in. Making our way to the teacher we are working with. I need to refer to him as “The Teacher” due to sensitivities.  I was struck how “normal” the school is. That is how similar it is to my Daughter’s school in the Chicago ‘burbs. Living on the edge of the continent! The Teacher’s classroom has two areas, a classic “desk area” at the front and lab tables at the back with a clear space. Today we were covering the experiential learning component of the curriculum with students carrying out at exercise designed to understand how data is distributed over a geographic area. We saw 5 classes experience the same class (The Teacher teaches all science classes for 8th grade.

Meridith and John absorbing all they have seen in the School library.

It was fantastic watching the students interact and learn as well as the diversity of learning styles. In some of our downtime I had the privilege of talking to The Teacher about native weather knowledge, something I aim to learn more about on this trip. He emphasized how important winds are to the Iñupiat people when they are out on the ice hunting (yes.. on the ice…) If the winds blow to hard on-shore the ice presses together and ridges. If the wind blows too hard off-shore the ice pulls apart and forms voids. The person in charge of the hunt keeps a careful eye on the winds and when they sense that there is a change coming it is time to go!

Meridith and John discussing the days learning with The Teacher.

Time flies when you are teaching fun! The day was soon over giving Meridith and John some time to discuss lessons learned with The Teacher. It was great watching education specialists going deep into how students learn. I was also in awe of the packed schedule at the school! I don’t think I would be so erudite after teaching 5+ back-to-back classes! Back in a taxi to the Hotel, dinner and debrief, a quick workout (after basically sitting all day) and its time for blog and bed!


First Impressions of Utqiagvik

Top of the World Hotel

It’s 5:35am in the morning, it is dark, but this is just a construct. Because it is 8:35am in Chicago and “light” is from around 11am to 1am, a twilight I now call day, it really makes no difference. We arrived at noon yesterday and this gave us a fantastic opportunity to become aquatinted with our temporary home and to understand a bit more about the community we are working in and the environment is which they live.

The team in front of the sea ice! Those are whale bones

Honestly, I was bracing myself for it to be much darker that it was! The twilight gives you a very nice pre-sunrise light, plenty to see a lot of detail. There is a constant layer of blowing snow (which plays havoc with ARM instrumentation) which made flash photography very challenging. After checking into our hotel (aptly named Top of The World) and grabbing lunch we kitted up and explored. Utqiagvik (Barrow) sits on Arctic tundra, too cold for trees to survive hear. The tundra has a layer of permafrost, a layer of soil that does not melt over the summer. So buildings are built on short stilts. I still need to get my head around Arctic meteorology (one reason why ARM is here: it is hard!) but we are getting a mix of light snow and blowing snow from some thin liquid layer clouds. Fascinating given the Beaufort Sea is completely frozen over.

Sam And Lee’s for homestyle Chinese.

We walked to the local store and did the very touristy thing of looking at the prices of produce. Things are expensive as everything is flown in. A nice aspect of Utqiagvik is the food, plenty of options. We caught a cab to Sammy and Lee’s for some Chinese food. There were pictures of the family all around the place. Very homely, you can see there is a sense of community in this, the northernmost outpost of the United States of America. Sea to Frozen Sea!