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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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