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May 2001

Labors of love: Volunteer weather watchers honored

Wayne and Mildred Warner. (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

In this hi-tech world of automated instruments, the human touch is still important, at least at the National Weather Service. Indeed, NWS relies on a dedicated group of volunteer cooperative observers to personally report basic temperature and precipitation measurements in remote areas of this country (see sidebar). "We've been relying on about 12,000 cooperative observers for over 100 years," explains James House (Cheyenne Weather Forecast Office). "When one retires, we try to replace him or her with someone else in the same general vicinity, so the total number of observers remains fairly stable. The data they report is invaluable—without them we'd have big blank areas, particularly here in the West."

On 21 April, a number of these volunteers gathered at the Mesa Lab at a workshop in their honor hosted by NCAR, NOAA, and the Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University. "We are indebted to these individuals," said Nolan Doesken, assistant state climatologist at CSU and, with Rene Munoz (OEO) and Barbara McGehan (NOAA), an organizer of the program. "They are a truly dedicated bunch, taking measurements 365 days a year." And the years can add up!

Among the participants was Wayne Warner, from Gering, Nebraska. "When I was about 20, my uncle said 'Here, kid, take this.' " "This" was responsibility for daily reporting of temperature and precipitation to the weather service, and the year was 1938. "My uncle, Bert Warner, had been taking the observations since 1932 and grew tired of it," Wayne explains, and, unlike his uncle, Wayne has remained a dedicated observer since that day. His station, known then as Harrisburg 10 WNW with the cooperative identification number of 253605, had been in existence since 1911 under various observers. Wayne and his wife Mildred lived on a ranch in Banner County "and taking the observations just became a part of my day," he says. Over the years, he and Mildred traveled extensively ("we've been on every continent except Antarctica") and they relied first on Wayne's father to fill in during their absences, then on a neighbor.

Wayne has received a lot of recognition from NWS in the form of letters of appreciation (kept carefully in a scrapbook created by Mildred) and awards. He received the John Campanius Holm award in 1968 for 30 years of service, the Edward H. Stoll award in 1988 for 50, and the Helmut E. Landsberg award for 60 years of service in 1998. But the one that seems to please him most is the Thomas Jefferson Award he received in 1978 for "unusual and outstanding accomplishments in the field of meteorological observation in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson, pioneer weather observer and third president of the United States."

In those 60-odd years, one weather event stands out in Wayne's memory: the Blizzard of '49. "We really don't know exactly how much snow we received—somewhere around two feet," he recalls. "It hit on January 2nd and we weren't plowed out until February 10th. There were high winds and drifts over 12 feet high. We got a little tired of the food, but we were lucky—we didn't lose any cattle in that one, though my brother did." Other memorable events: a storm with very large hail in 1956, which damaged windows at his ranch, and a temperature of –40°F in 1989 (a Nebraska record broken in 1999 by a reading of –47°F).

When the responsibility of maintaining the ranch became burdensome in 1998, Wayne and Mildred moved to Gering, Nebraska, "across the crick from Scottsbluff." And the weather service set up another station for him: Gering 1 NW, with its own co-op number (253193). "Mildred thought it would keep me out of trouble," Wayne jokes.

Even at 83, Wayne is not the oldest observer in the area: Wyoming boasts of John Kortes, who at 93 has been on duty since 1 January 1930. "I'm not too sure I'm going to last that long," laughs Wayne.

Brevin and Remy Currier. (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

While John Kortes started observing at age 14, and Wayne at age 20, two observers are starting even sooner. Brothers Brevin and Remy Currier (ages 9 and 11, respectively) participated in the 21 April event, accompanied by their parents, Dan and Shannon. Between them (they alternate days), the boys maintain Collbran 2SW (ID number 05174302), a station about 50 miles southeast of Grand Junction, Colorado. "My mom found out that Marian Hawkins, who had been observing for 25 years, was ready to retire. We like learning about the weather, so we agreed to do it," Remy explains. Since October 1999, the boys have been taking their readings at 8:00 a.m. each morning; an uncle fills in when they travel. "Since we're home schooled, it doesn't interfere with getting ready in the morning," Remy adds. Shannon Currier says, "It's providing a wonderful base for learning about a range of sciences." The temperature and precipitation measurements are not the only service the boys provided: they also catch spiders for Denver's Natural History Museum. Talk about dedication!

  • Sally Bates

    On the Web:

    Weather Observation Station

    Record Locator
    Blizzard of '49

    Keeping up with the observers

    Intrigued by the observers' stories, Staff Notes Monthly asked James House, NWS focal point for the cooperative observers in the Wyoming area, more about the program. Here's his answer:

    The network of cooperative observers is a large group of mostly unpaid citizens who keep weather records. The program has been officially in place for 111 years, but there are records from the middle 1600s, and Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin were known to keep weather records.

    The Cheyenne Weather Forecast Office oversees the Cooperative Observer Program for an area that runs from Chadron, in the northern Nebraska panhandle, to Lodgepole, just above the Colorado border. It goes west to Baggs, Wyoming, and then north up to Muddy Gap.

    Several of our sites are inaccessable during the winter, and some are during the summer. Muddy Gap is up north of Rawlins. It gets snowed in (or out) during the winter. The general store/gas station is the co-op site and the 3 to 10 or so people that live up there are in the store at least once a day. Shirley Basin is another remote site. The uranium mine personnel used to keep the records until the mine closed. Ron Heward, a rancher, took over on 15 April 1994. He is often the coldest spot in the nation. I have stayed over night there and it is cold! His nearest neighbor is five miles to the east.

    Observer reports contain temperature extremes and precipitation (including rainfall and snowfall plus snow depth). Some sites include soil temperatures and winds. The observing form has a remarks section that may include mention of the severity of a storm or that it was a "nice day." I've even seen mention of the birth of a calf.

    In many cases the co-ops keep records for themselves, as it aids them in running their farms and ranches. Others are just plain interested in the weather. In the big picture, the records are used to study the world's climate. But often the readings are used in local newspaper articles or as the topic of conversation at the town coffee shop.

    As the focal point for the program, I know these people by their first names, I know the spouses and some of the kids. I know which dogs to play with, which should be working, and, most importantly, which ones to be cautious of! I have lunch with some of the co- ops. I check on others after a bad storm has gone through, just to make sure they are all right. I often call before I make a visit to see if they need something from the big city, as a couple of my sites are nearly 50 miles from the nearest store. This is one of those jobs that it is a pleasure to do!

    • James House (NWS Weather Forecast Office, Cheyenne, WY)

    Want to be an observer this summer?

    The Colorado Climate Center (CCC) is undertaking climate studies that could make use of volunteers here in Boulder County. After the Fort Collins flash flood in 1997, Nolan Doesken was responsible for documenting rainfall patterns from that extreme storm. "The primary source of data that allowed us to determine how much rain actually fell from that storm was informal measurements provided by literally hundreds of local citizens," Doesken explains. "It took nearly three months to compile but eventually we had a clear picture of that storm. Rainfall totals varied from a maximum of over 14 inches to under 3 inches over a distance of less than three miles."

    The Fort Collins, Colorado, flood of 28 July 1997 resulted in five deaths and almost $200 million in property damage. The inset shows precipitation totals for the Spring Creek drainage basin.

    Realizing that many citizens enjoy watching the weather and measuring precipitation, the CCC began to form a network of weather observers equipped with simple instruments for measuring rain and hail. A Web site was created by local high school students in Fort Collins; data from the volunteer reports is displayed there each day on color maps.

    From a few dozen volunteers in 1998, the network swelled to nearly 400 participants last summer. It is sponsored by nearly two dozen private and public organizations that benefit from better documentation of localized rain and hail patterns.

    Weather patterns in Boulder County are as varied and extreme as anywhere in the country, and this year Doesken's project, called the Community Collaborative Rain and Hail Study (CoCo RaHS), is expanding into Boulder County. Volunteers of all ages who can spare about two minutes each day to check a rain gauge and report in via the Web are invited to join the project. If you would like to participate in this collaborative research and education effort, see Community Collaborative Rain and Hail Study

    In addition to current rain, hail, and snow maps of northern Colorado, the site has on-line registration for volunteers. Student interns will reply to all applications via e-mail, assigning station names and numbers to all volunteers. The new local coordinator for Boulder County is Matt Kelsch (COMET), ext. 8476, kelsch@ucar.edu. Volunteers are encouraged to use high-capacity, 4-inch-diameter manual rain gauges for the daily measurements. Gauges can be purchased at cost ($25) from Matt. Complimentary gauges may be available for low-income families and for teachers.


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    Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu
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    Last revised: Mon May 21 14:55:25 MDT 2001