Influences of varying rain-gauge networks on continental and terrestrial precipitation averages (derived from data observed on those networks) are evaluated. Unsystematically and systematically designed station networks are considered, the latter being represented by the NCAR World Monthly Surface Station Climatology, which contains hand-picked but time-varying networks that date back to the 1800s. Biases arising from spatially uneven and temporally variable precipitation-observing networks can be significant.
For all the continents, except South America, sparse rain-gauge networks produce overestimates of continental mean precipitation. Mean precipitation for South America, in contrast, is underestimated substantially by low densities of observing stations. Sampling errors tend to be large in areas of high precipitation and in regions with strong spatial precipitation gradients (e.g. in the Sahel). These patterns occur whether the station network has been selected systematically (as in the NCAR network) or unsystematically.
Systematic sampling of mean precipitation (at the NCAR station locations), however, suggests that many yearly NCAR station networks are adequate for estimating continental average precipitation. As early as 1890, NCAR networks for Australia resolve continental average precipitation accurately. Not until 1960, however, do NCAR networks for South America begin to resolve continental mean precipitation adequately. Regional and continental NCAR network errors also tend to cancel one another, often giving accurate yearly estimates of terrestrial mean precipitation.