Measuring Flow

Have you ever seen something that looks like this…



Or like this…











Or even like this…

These shed and boxes are  called stream gage stations. They are scattered through out the United States along river banks. Stream gages can even be silver boxes mounted to sides of bridges. The gages are part of the stream gaging network maintained by the United States Geological Survey (USGS). Yes, the USGS studies more than just rocks and volcanoes! One of the biggest responsibilities of the USGS is to study water!


Each one of these stations has equipment that can detect the height of the water and how much water is flowing in the river. 


The amount of water flowing in the river is measured in cubic feet per second* (cfs).  This type of information is especially important when designing the construction of dams and bridges, irrigation, and during stormy weather.

Next blog installment:  Check the amount of water flowing in your state at each stream gage station- right from your own computer!!! 

*What is a cubic foot?  Picture a box that is 1 foot high, 1 foot in length, and 1 foot in width to visualize a cubic foot.  Another way to visualize a cubic foot is to picture a basketball since a basketball is just about the size of a cubic foot.  So you can think of the stream gage as being able to tell you how many water “basketballs” flow past it every second.



Do raindrops get bigger as they fall from the sky?

This excellent question came from a second grader while learning about condensation in The Weather Program taught by Catch the Science Bug.   He wanted to know if more and more water vapor molecules stuck to the water drop as it fell and  if that is why the amount of rain falling can change from a drizzle to rain to a down pour.

Yes! After checking with the National Weather Service, water vapor can attach to raindrops as they fall and increase the size of the falling drop, thus increasing the amount of rain falling. The United States Geological Survey also informed us that raindrops can bump into each other and become one drop as they are falling as well.  This process is called coalescence. Once a drop reaches 4 millimeters in size, it usually splits into two drops.

Additionally when a different cloud moves overhead, the amount of rain and the intensity of rain may also change. So this is another reason why, we can change from a drizzle to rain.  Rain is usually from a cloud higher in our atmosphere and drizzle from a lower cloud.

In case you are wondering…..How do raindrops form?

Raindrops form when water vapor molecules bump into a dust particle in a cloud and condense around it becoming a droplet (smaller than a drop). Condense means that the water vapor (water in gas form) changes to water in liquid form around the dust particle. Wow- a good thing about dust! The size of the dust particle will affect the size of the droplet. A bigger particle of dusts results in a bigger droplet. The droplets must coalesce (bump and become one) with other droplets to become heavy enough to fall from the cloud.

How do we know about water flow in a river?

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The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and the United States Geological Survey got together to study water movement in the Blackstone River.  Watch this video to learn how the team of scientists and engineers collect data on water movement. It’s a more colorful story than you might think!  Special permission was granted to do this study so please do not attempt this on a stream or river near you.