Thursday, December 16, 2010

Calling all weather geeks

Astronomy and meteorology are two fields of science that still welcome and value the input of amateurs. Earlier this year an amateur stargazer discovered a "baby" black hole while peering through his telescope from his backyard. That's good stuff!

Meteorologists paint weather big pictures but still depend on weather geeks "on the ground" to let them know what's really going on locally. (GW)

Keeping a weather eye

Endlessly engrossed, a legion of volunteers tracks the New England elements in minute detail

By Brian MacQuarrie
Boston Globe
December 16, 2010

NORTH CONWAY, N.H. — Armed with the gauges, funnels, and rulers that are the gadgets of their trade, a volunteer legion of self-described “weather geeks’’ rises early, peers at the sky, and eagerly awaits the worst of another New England winter.

The elements are their element; and the National Weather Service is the beneficiary of the snow measurements they take every time a new batch of flakes falls. Sometimes, that is once a week. Other times, it is six times a day.

“What do I love about the weather? Everything!’’ exclaimed Bruce Barrett, 41, of Albany Township, Maine, as he left a recent instructional session with a new plastic gauge under his arm. “One of my biggest regrets in college was not taking a climatology course.’’

Barrett, who manages a land trust and tends to some chickens, is about to get as much weather as he can handle. As a newly minted foot soldier in the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow Network, Barrett has agreed to measure precipitation every morning and report his findings to the national group’s website by 9 a.m.

His findings, and hundreds of others from across New England, will appear on the site by 9:45 a.m., provide data for daily newscasts, and funnel figures to the National Weather Service for use in everything from emergency alerts to long-range predictions.

Although most people are content simply to talk or gripe about the weather, Barrett and his cohorts revel in a hands-on relationship with fast-changing conditions that, as Mark Twain famously noted, make New England devilishly distinctive.

“It’s data that people want, especially up here,’’ said Karen Hemeon, who answers the phone at the Mount Washington Observatory Weather Discovery Center. “People are always calling us up. How much snowfall is at Pinkham Notch? How much at Tuckerman Ravine?’’

Hemeon attended the once-a-year, two-hour tutorial with Amanda, her sixth-grade daughter, and said their family observatory would probably be up and running by the weekend.

Mary Stampone, the New Hampshire state climatologist, said volunteers help fill the topographical gaps that radar and satellite imagery can miss.

“We get people from across the board,’’ said Stampone, who led the class and is state coordinator for the collaborative network.

“We have schools participating; we have retirees, just about anyone who is a weather geek,’’ she said.

Channeling that interest into a daily routine becomes complicated in the winter, said Stampone, who also is a University of New Hampshire geography professor. Although recording rainfall is relatively straightforward, taking the measure of drifting, uneven snow can be tedious and time-consuming.

Volunteers are asked to calculate the depth of new snow, the depth of total snow cover, and the amount of melted liquid in each new sample of snow. Liquid is measured in hundredths of an inch, new snow in tenths, and total snow cover in half-inches.

And if the snow has been blowing, which occurs often, these hardy observers are encouraged to take an average depth from various spots in their yards.

“Snow is difficult; it always has been, and it always will be,’’ Stampone said with a sigh to eight volunteers in the recent class.

Merle Weber, a retiree from Madison, can relate.

“We’re on dial-up at our house, so it takes me at least a half-hour to get the report in,’’ said Weber, who has been measuring rain, hail, and snow since July 4, 2008.

“But it’s very interesting to put in writing what you had casually seen over the years.’’

Michelle Cruz, education director at the Weather Discovery Center, said the growing discussion about climate change is fueling interest in the nuts and bolts of daily weather.

“It’s something that affects us all the time,’’ Cruz said. “It’s something we can learn from and study, but up here we just don’t know what’s going to happen.’’

For Stacie Hanes, a National Weather Service senior forecaster, not all information is useful. Spotters need not call the agency to report lightning, a “dark sky,’’ or say breathlessly that “it’s starting to rain,’’ she cautioned. But immediate reports by phone or e-mail of severe weather, she said, can result in an emergency alert.

Hanes, who is Maine director of the collaborative, welcomes New England’s winter weather for professional reasons, even though she became interested in meteorology because of the regular thunderstorms near her former home in Atlanta.

“I really do enjoy forecasting winter storms,’’ said Hanes, adding, “I think we’ll get a couple of big snows in February or March.’’

To Barrett, the budding weather-watcher, a nasty blizzard or two will not deter him from his new responsibilities.

“All I needed was a gauge,’’ he said with a smile. “I have to go out to feed and water the chickens anyway.’’

MacQuarrie can be reached at


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