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Volunteer weather watchers stick to their daily measure for decades

Posted: Tuesday, April 29, 2003

GRAFTON, N.Y. Tempera-ture checks are easy. Everett Wagar simply looks at the thermometer.

But measuring snow cover is an art. Wagar repeatedly stabs a ruler into the knee-high drifts and peers at the stick with 84-year-old eyes.

Right there's two feet,'' Wagar said, 24 1/2 inches there. See, it drifts around a bit. You gotta take an average.''

Wagar is an official weather watcher, part of a nationwide army of volunteer observers at more than 11,000 sites recording basic climatic data such as high and low temperatures and precipitation levels.

Called the Cooperative Observer Network, the program hasn't changed much since it began in 1890. In an era of supercomputers and satellites, the nation's climatic data often is collected with copper buckets and thermometers by folks like Wagar, who has been reporting from his Albany-area back yard for 40 years.

Thank goodness for the Co-op program. Otherwise, we wouldn't know what the climate was like in this country on a month-to-month basis, and we certainly wouldn't know how the climate has varied in this country over the last century or more,'' said David Robinson, the state climatologist for New Jersey.

The figures are collected by the National Weather Service and crunched by the National Climatic Data Center. The resulting reports are used by all sorts of people structural engineers designing buildings, utilities predicting heating fuel demand and even trial lawyers checking past weather conditions.

But first, weather conditions have to be observed. In Wagar's case, that means tracking daily temperature extremes with a digital monitor in his kitchen. Precipitation is measured in special metal buckets in the back yard.

During snowy, cold winters like this one, Wagar puts on boots and a button-up coat over his cardigan to trudge outside. Despite a thick blanket of snow on the ground on a recent day, there was barely a snowball's worth in the collection bucket. Wagar took the snow tube into his kitchen, hastened melting with hot water from the tap and measured out 0.16 inches of precipitation.

Wagar writes the numbers in what looks like a ticket book. Later, he records them a second time in a monthly log, signs it and mails it to the weather service bureau in Albany.

Wagar started doing this Oct. 1, 1962, according to weather service records. He seized the opportunity when the old observer from this part of Rensselaer County moved away. Wagar has been doing it since, minus the occasional break when a relative fills in.

Steve Pertgen of the weather service's Albany bureau calls Wagar a heck of an observer.'' But it is a job with little glory, and even less compensation. Wagar said he received a pen for 30 years of service and got a National Weather Service cap a few months ago.

So why bother?

I really like doing it,'' he said. If I didn't, I wouldn't be doing it this many years.

Wagar is a retired maintenance machinist. Many other weather observers are retired, although Pertgen notes that volunteers come from all ages and backgrounds.

In fact, many observation stations are watched not by individuals, but by government organizations, schools or businesses. Among the groups running some of the roughly 200 stations in New York state are the Village of Cobleskill and Cornell University. The Mohonk Mountain House near New Paltz, for instance, has hosted an official weather station for 107 years.

Under almost every condition imaginable over that 107 years of time 39,000 days somebody went to that weather box,'' said Paul Huth, director of research at the Mohonk Preserve.

Huth even uses the same brass bucket put in place in the 19th Century. A few hours north in Grafton, Wagar's rain collection equipment is stamped as the property of the U.S. Weather Bureau, which was renamed the National Weather Service in 1970.

Weather watchers can last a long time, too. Wagar is not even close to the longevity record of 78 years. It's common for watchers to have decades of service, although officials say longevity is decreasing as people move around more these days.

The fact is that this is a very young, transient population we have in the country these days, and we're losing people who have the spirit, who have the interest, who even have the stability in their lives to make these observations,'' Robinson said.

Weather service officials say they have been able to handle turnover among observers. But they have heeded calls from people like Robinson to modernize the system

The observer program's national manager, Andrew Horvitz, said volunteers like Wagar will never disappear, but the government plans to phase in a more automated system over the next decade. Temperature and precipitation levels will be reported automatically every hour, Horvitz said.

Weather spotters still will be needed to empty rain gauges, take snow depth measurements and record special phenomenon like hurricanes and hail, but Horvitz describes the coming system as a man-machine mix.''

By that time, Wagar will probably have given back his bucket. Though still spry in his 80s, he sees an end to his days of trudging through the snow.

Yeah, I like doing it,'' he said, but I think I'll have to give it up pretty soon.''



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