I-Team: Camera near Area 51 raises questions

RACHEL, Nev. - Is the military using civilian weather stations to keep tabs on people poking around public land near Area 51? That's the latest theory from a long-time Area 51 watcher. The I-Team's Glen Meek took a look at allegations contained in a new online documentary and reached out to civilian scientists for their explanation of what's happening.

In the central Nevada hamlet of Rachel, the center of commerce might be the Little A'Le'Inn.

It's a bar and grill known worldwide for its proximity to the isolated government air base known as Area 51. Some believe captured alien spaceships are stored at the base.

In the parking lot of the restaurant is a fake flying saucer and a very real government monitoring station.

“It is a weather station,” said the bar’s owner Pat.

She says the Desert Research Institute (DRI) moved the climate monitoring station a few years ago from the center of town to its current spot outside the inn. The new station has something the old one did not.

“There's a camera that protects their equipment from vandalism. It also shoots the end of my building,” Pat said.

The purpose of that camera is the focus of an online documentary by long-time Area 51 watcher Glenn Campbell. He notes that other climate monitoring stations (like one in Alamo, Nevada) don't have cameras, while the Rachel station does.

“This place is of no strategic interest to the Air Force. The Air Force doesn't care who's going by there. They do care who's going by in Rachel. So, that Rachel camera -- I can only assume -- is there for the Air Force's purposes,” he said.

His theory is that the military is using cameras mounted on civilian weather stations to keep tabs on tourists and other folks curious about Area 51.

The DRI says the Rachel camera is there to make sure highway signs that flash weather and traffic information are working properly.

Campbell says the camera appears to look directly down on the signs, with a view that would be difficult to see what they're displaying.

The Rachel camera lens moved several times while 8 News NOW was there -- making it appear the camera was being remotely controlled.

The heart of Campbell's theory lies at the top of Tikaboo Peak in the Pahranagat Range. The DRI operates a weather station here.

“The ridiculous thing is you could put your weather station on any of these peaks out here. There are dozens of peaks in the Pahranagat Range,” he said. “Somehow, this weather station just happened to end up at the one peak where you can see Area 51.”

Campbell says he believes this station exists to keep an eye on people with a view to the secret base.

“I think there's deception involved. I think the original purpose of this installation is to put a camera on Tikaboo. I think the whole idea of a weather station is just a cover story. It's a front to allow the Air Force to do it without raising any bells,” he said.

The DRI says Campbell is off-base. DRI Communications Officer Justin Broglio wrote in a statement:

"DRI is not a front for a U.S. Air Force intelligence gathering operation outside Area 51. DRI serves as the nonprofit environmental research arm of the Nevada System of Higher Education.

The four stations where cameras installed were Rachel, Goldfield, Duckwater, and Ely. The cameras are only there as a check/reference to view the large digital readout signs along the highways in communities with poor cell phone coverage. The goal of those large signs is being able to provide public weather alerts as well as emergency messages using the CEMP stations as a communication hub. The cameras help CEMP make sure the large signs are displaying correctly.

The cameras and digital signs are not in any way associated with the CEMP. They are simply co-located on the site of the CEMP station and use the same communications infrastructure as the CEMP station.

Neither the CEMP station at Rachel nor the station on Tikaboo Peak are live streaming cameras. The images from these cameras are stored at the Western Regional Climate Center in Reno, Nevada and are managed by WRCC staff.

The WRCC is one of six Regional Climate Centers. The Regional Climate Centers (RCC) deliver climate services at national, regional and state levels working with NOAA partners in the National Climatic Data Center, National Weather Service, the American Association of State Climatologists, the Regional Sciences and Assessment Program, and other NOAA Research Institutes. We also partner with the Department of Interior Climate Science Centers and Landscape Conservation Cooperatives.

WRCC manages the cameras at Rachel, Ely, and Goldfield. As stated above, they are there to monitor the associated NOAA sign that posts NOAA weather advisories and other local interest messages. As a check on weather advisories and part of a preprogrammed schedule, the camera was also set up to rotate once every 10 minutes taking images of the horizon and sky to allow monitoring of developing weather conditions, in case verification of a posted warning was desired.

The Tikaboo station is part of a Pahranagat Range monitoring project, similar to the NEVCAN project - monitoring the Sheep Mountain Range (north of Las Vegas) and Spring Mountain Range (east of Ely, near GBNP). The Tikaboo and Badger Spring Valley stations are monitoring basic watershed conditions in the Pahranagat Range in combination with a CEMP station in Alamo and a station in the Pahranagat Wildlife Refuge.

As for Tikaboo, the stationary camera is there to provide a fixed baseline of the state of the watershed and an image is taken every 10 minutes. At the time of installation, the camera was one of the best low power, wide angle, outdoor cameras available. The movable camera is there to monitor the state of the station and equipment. Communications at the site only allow the fixed camera images to be telemetered, i.e., there is not sufficient bandwidth to telemeter the imagery from the movable camera. There is even frequent disruption of the fixed camera images.

Due to the remoteness of the site, occasional, extremely low quality images of the station equipment were deemed worth the cost to provide maintenance evaluation and trip safety planning. As for why Tikaboo was selected as the site for this WX station out of all the other peaks in the Pahranagat Range, it was partially because of the site exposure and elevation as it is a compliment to the station in Badger Spring Valley (the watershed most dominantly seen in the images from the fixed camera), but mostly because there was already a foot path to this peak. WRCC could not find similar access to any of the other peaks in the Pahranagat Range. While the Tikaboo/Badger Spring stations aren't part of the NEVCAN transects of stations, WRCC saw them as a good opportunity to compliment the NEVCAN transect stations in the Sheep Mountain range (south) and the Spring Mountain (Great Basin) range (north). Much of the instrumentation is similar to the NEVCAN transect stations."

When asked whether the Air Force used weather camera images for surveillance, an Air Force representative wrote:

"There are a variety of activities throughout Air Force's Nevada Test and Training Range complex. The Air Force uses many means to ensure the safety and security of military and non-military personnel, as well as the infrastructure protected within and around the withdrawn lands."


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