Monday, March 25, 2013

Capturing the blizzard of March 2013 with time lapse video

A storm that came late in the season, the March 2013 blizzard (dubbed "Virgil" by the folks at the Weather Channel) caught many off guard in central Illinois.

In the Champaign-Urbana area, local schools cancelled class first. Then, the community college.

And at about 9 pm, the University sent out a mass email, warning UIUC spring breakers not to attempt the drive back to campus. Finally, at about 1:30 am, Illinois officially cancelled classes.

When it finished here in Urbana, Ill., the storm dropped more than 11 inches, breaking the previous March 24 snow record. In my hometown of Springfield, it dropped 18.5", beating a single-storm record that persisted for 113 years.

Snow began falling at about 2:30 pm on March 24. As soon as the snow began to fall, I started building a time-lapse setup, and took my first pictures at 2:38.

While I've detailed here before how to make a time-lapse camera, those previous designs were battery-powered, and had a life span of 12 hours. Like the previous build, this used a camera presupposed from an unmanned aircraft system.  But the forecast called for a snow that could last up to 20 hours, so I designed this setup to run on AC power instead.

As it turns out, it's much less complicated to run a time lapse camera on AC power. No battery calculations are necessary. All that's required is the camera, the camera housing, an AC extension cord, a USB cable, and an AC to USB adapter.

Time-lapse weather camera at 2:39 pm on Sunday, March 24.

You see, most USB devices charge/run on 5 volts. That's the same with GoPro cameras and smartphones. In fact, this setup used an AC to USB adapter from an HTC smartphone. You should, however, check the specs on the adapter to make sure the adapter isn't supplying more than 5v.

Time-lapse weather camera at about 5:00 pm on Monday, March 25.

The LCD on the GoPro let me know I could cram about 5,000 photos on a 32GB card. I set the GoPro's intervalmeter to take photos at 30 second intervals, and retrieved the camera at 10:32 am on Monday, March 25.

Time-lapse weather camera at 9:52 am on Monday, March 25.

If I were to do this all over, I'd place the camera at a higher position, but not too much. This would have prevented snow from piling up and blocking the photo. Too much height, however, might not yield a good perspective to capture the accumulation in such a dramatic fashion.

I'd also have built a visor to keep the snow from piling on top of the lens. This probably could have been accomplished with a small piece of bent cardboard and a rubber band, or tape.

The students at the University of Illinois may have gotten away with an extra day of spring break. But for some, that didn't soften the blow from a basketball defeat from Miami-Florida that cost the Illini a spot in the sweet 16.

A few souls trekked through the blizzard watch the game: