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Posts by Mark Blonquist

The Quest for Accurate Air Temperature (Part 2)

In the conclusion to last week’s blog, Mark Blonquist, chief scientist at Apogee Instruments and air temperature measurement expert, explains the complexities of some proposed solutions to the problems that challenge accurate air temperature measurement.

A aspirated raditation shield by Apogee Instruments

An aspirated radiation shield manufactured by Apogee Instruments in Logan, Utah. Multiple models of passive and active shields are available from several manufacturers.

Solution:  Passive Radiation Shield

In addition to an accurate sensor, accurate air temperature measurement requires proper shielding and ventilation of the sensor.  Passive shields do not require power, making them simple and low-cost, but they warm above air temperature in low wind or high solar radiation. Warming is increased when there is snow on the ground due to increased solar radiation load from higher albedo and increased reflected solar radiation. Errors as high as 10 degrees C have been reported in passive shields over snow (Genthon et al., 2011; Huwald et al., 2009).  The figure below shows the differences in error for the two conditions.

Shortwave Radiation > 50 W m-2 diagram

Corrections for Passive Shields

Equations to correct air temperature measurements in passive shields have been proposed, but often require measurement of wind speed and solar radiation, and are applicable to a specific shield design.  Corrections that don’t require additional meteorological measurements have also been proposed, such as air temperature adjustment based on the difference between air temperature and interior plate temperature differences. Others have suggested modifying traditional multi-plate passive shields to include a small fan that can be operated under specific conditions, but using natural aspiration when wind speeds are above an established threshold.

Solution: Active Shields

Warming of air temperature sensors above actual air temperature is minimized with active shields, which are more accurate than passive shields under conditions of high solar radiation load or low wind, but power is required for the fan. The power requirement for active shields ranges from one to six watts (80-500 mA). For solar-powered weather stations, this can be a major fraction of power usage for the entire station and has typically required a large solar panel and large battery. Power requirement and cost are disadvantages of active shields (Table 3), and they have led to the use of less accurate passive shields on many solar-powered stations.

Also, the fan motor can heat air as it passes by. Active shields should be constructed to avoid recirculation of heated air back into the shield.  There is no reference standard for the elimination of radiation-induced temperature increase of a sensor for air temperature measurement, but well-designed active shields minimize this effect.

Advantages and disadvantages of passive and active radiation shield diagram

Table 3: Advantages and disadvantages of passive (naturally-aspirated) and active (fan-aspirated) radiation shields.

There is no reference standard for the elimination of radiation-induced temperature increase of a sensor for air temperature measurement, but well-designed active shields minimize this effect. Radiation-induced temperature increase was analyzed in long-term experiments over snow and grass surfaces by comparing temperature measurements from three models of active radiation shields (the same temperature sensor was used in all shields and were matched before deployment). Continuous measurements for one year indicated that mean differences among shield models were less than 0.1 C over grass and less than 0.3 C over snow. Differences increased with increasing solar radiation, particularly during winter months when there was snow (high reflectivity) on the ground.

Air Temperature: a Complex Measurement

The properties of materials and nearly all biological, chemical, and physical processes are temperature dependent. As a result, air temperature is perhaps the most widely measured environmental variable. Accurate air temperature measurement is essential for weather monitoring and climate research worldwide. The road to accuracy is complex, however, and will continue to be challenging given the trade-off between accuracy and power consumption with passive and active shields.

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The Quest for Accurate Air Temperature (Part 1)

Mark Blonquist, chief scientist at Apogee Instruments and air temperature measurement expert, explains the difficulties of obtaining accurate air temperature.

Air Temperature gauge at the foot of a tree

The accuracy of air temperature has come a long way.

Accurate air temperature measurements are challenging, despite decades of research and development aimed at improving instruments and methods. People assume that they can use a static louvered radiation shield along with a temperature sensor and start measuring accurate air temperature.  That assumption is good if you are at a site where the wind blows all the time (roughly greater than 3 m/s).  However, if the wind at your field site is below that, you’re going to see errors due to solar heating (See Figure 1).

Wind Speed Graph diagram

Figure 1: Passive Shield Error: Data for 3 different models are graphed.

Challenge 1:  Accurate Sensors

Over the years, thermocouples, thermistors, and platinum resistance thermometers (PRTs) have been used for air temperature measurement, each with associated advantages and disadvantages. PRTs have the reputation as the preferred sensor for air temperature measurement due to high accuracy and stability. However, thermistors have high signal-to-noise ratio, are easy to use and low cost, and have similar accuracy and stability to PRTs. Thermocouples are becoming less commonly used for air temperature measurement because of the requirement of accurate measurement of reference temperature (i.e., meter temperature, data logger panel temperature).

Advantages and Disadvantages of Air Temperature Sensors Chart

Challenge 2: Housing Air Temperature Sensors

The challenge of accurate air temperature measurement is far greater than having an accurate sensor, as temperature measured by an air temperature sensor is not necessarily equal to air temperature. Temperature sensors must be kept in thermal equilibrium with air through proper shielding in order to provide accurate measurements. To do this, housings should minimize heat gains and losses due to conduction and radiation, and enhance coupling to air via convective currents. They must shield it from shortwave (solar) radiant heating and longwave radiant cooling. A temperature sensor should also be thermally isolated from the housing to minimize heat transport to and from the sensor by conduction. The housing should provide ventilation so the temperature sensor is in thermal equilibrium with the air. Also, the housing should keep precipitation off the sensor, which is necessary to minimize evaporative cooling of the sensor. Conversely, condensation on sensors can cause warming. When condensed water subsequently evaporates, it cools the sensor via removal of latent heat (evaporational cooling).

Challenge 3: Size of Sensor

The magnitude of wind speed effects on air temperature measurement in passive shields is highly dependent on the thermal mass (size) of the sensor. Many weather stations have combined relative humidity and temperature sensors, which are much larger than a stand-alone air temperature sensor.  Air temperature errors from larger probes are greater than those from smaller sensors. One study, Tanner (2001), reported results where a common temperature/RH probe was approximately 0.5 degrees C warmer than a common thermistor in a weather-proof housing.

Thermal mass of temperature sensors also has a major impact on sensor response time. Sensors with small thermal mass equilibrate and respond to changes quicker and are necessary for applications requiring high-frequency air temperature measurements.

Thermal Mass measurement table

Challenge 4:  Proper Shielding

In addition to an accurate sensor, accurate air temperature measurement requires proper shielding and ventilation of the sensor. Active, fan aspiration improves accuracy under conditions of low wind but requires power to operate the fan. Passive, natural aspiration minimizes power use but can reduce accuracy in conditions of high solar load or low wind speed.  Radiation shields for air temperature sensors should be placed in an environment where air temperature is representative. For example, air temperature sensors and radiation shields should not be deployed on the tops of buildings or in areas where they will be shaded by structures or trees. Conditions in microenvironments have that potential to be very different from surrounding conditions. Typical mounting heights for air temperature sensors are 1.2 to 2.0 meters above the ground. Typically, radiation shields should be mounted over vegetation.

Up next: Mark Blonquist explains the complexities of some of the proposed solutions to the above challenges in part 2.

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