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Utah Climate Center Honored for 125 Years of Weather Data

Climate Center AwardScientists at Utah State University have been recording and reporting daily weather observations for 125 years, and the Utah Climate Center was recently recognized by the National Weather Service with an Honored Institution Award for that consistent service and the vast amount of data it has generated.

Accurate weather forecasts are crucial to decisions that affect individual lives, corporations, government entities and entire economies, and those forecasts are built on records of daily weather observations. Each time Utah Climate Center staffers gather information about specific details of the day’s weather they are adding more important data points to an unusually long record.

“Long records are very important to helping us understand climate and how things have changed over time,” said Randy Graham, meteorologist-in-charge at the National Weather Services’ Salt Lake City office. “Back in the day, this was about climatology and establishing our climate record. Now this data is going into numerical weather prediction models and help improve our forecasts.”

Climate Center AwardCurrently, daily observations are made and recorded by graduate student/Utah Climate Center employees Martin Schroeder or Boniface Fasu, and occasionally by center director and State Climatologist Robert Gillies. Their work is added to records that include more than 45,600 days-worth of observations. Fasu explained that each day they record daily maximum and minimum air temperatures, precipitation, soil temperatures at four different depths and a description of visibility distances and note whether it’s sunny, overcast, windy, raining or snowing. In fact, one of the challenges in checking on the weather is the weather.

“Reading instruments in a blizzard is really interesting,” Gillies said. “And once, when a strong inversion had built for several days, I drove past the entrance to one station twice because I couldn’t see where to turn off the road.”

Getting the readings isn’t just a matter of looking at a few gauges. Schroeder described how observations in the winter include boiling water and transporting it in a Thermos to the station’s snow gauges. They use a known quantity of the hot water to melt the snow collected in the gauge and then figure the difference to determine how much water the snow contains. Occasionally, if it’s snowing hard enough, it can be challenging to get the calculation right because snow keeps falling into the gauge

Lisa Verzella, a National Weather Service meteorologist who coordinates the network of Utah’s volunteer observers, said although there are stations with automated sensors, people provide better records because they are familiar with the instruments they use and how they read them. In addition, when a severe weather event happens and road crews and others need to know about current conditions, instruments may not “see” some of the activity because radar is blocked by mountains.z

“But we can contact observers in an area and get a report of what’s really happening on the ground,” Verzella said. “We often get calls from insurance companies checking on weather events on a specific date when they are evaluating claims.”

Graham said data collected by observers is examined closely after a severe weather event, including information from the days and hours preceding it, to help develop better forecasting tools. Although individuals may think of weather only in terms of how it affects their plans, forecasting is vital to the nation’s economy. In fact, the National Weather Service is an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce, the part of the federal government tasked with promoting economic growth and stability.

“Many industries rely on weather information,” Graham said. “Utilities use it to project demand. The travel and transportation industries need it to plan timetables and to know, for example, if a plane needs extra fuel because of the conditions. Insurance companies and engineers need the information. It is vital to our economy.”

Contact: Robert Gillies, robert.gillies@usu.edu, 435-797-2664
Writer: Lynnette Harris, lynnette.harris@usu.edu, 435-797-2189(office) 435-764-6936 (cell)