The People’s Weather Service

Every morning, 12,000 citizens across the nation trudge out to their thermometers and gauges and start collecting data for the government.

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It is likely that Richard Hendrickson is exactly the kind of person that Thomas Jefferson hoped to recruit when he proposed a nationwide network of weather observers in 1797. At 89, Hendrickson, a high school dropout and retired poultry farmer, has kept a systematic record of temperature and precipitation at his home in Bridgehampton, Long Island, for 71 years. This is more than three decades longer than Jefferson himself, who bought his first thermometer while he was writing the Declaration of Independence, having started to keep a weather diary four years earlier. Weather, like democracy, is something we share.

Richard Hendrickson did not have to purchase his first thermometer; in 1930 the U.S. government installed one in his backyard, along with a rain gauge and other instruments. Like nearly 12,000 others across the country, people in every state and every terrain and every kind of profession-optometrist, rancher, cook, lawyer, minister, homemaker, nurse, and teacher, among them-Hendrickson is an unpaid Cooperative Weather Observer for the National Weather Service. Put the emphasis here on cooperative. These are people who labor in the background so the rest of us can live in the foreground. So we can travel on airplanes and know to pack our umbrellas in the morning and when it is unwise to water our lawns or dangerous to light fires. These are people who take their commitment to their neighbors-their citizenship-as seriously as Jefferson had envisioned.

Twice a day, at eight in the morning and eight at night, Hendrickson can be found out on his lawn among his collection of Civil War cannons, measuring and recording precipitation, high and low temperatures, barometric readings, and any other weather phenomenon that appears significant. He phones the information to a forecast office in Upton, New York, where it is relayed, almost immediately, to radio and television stations-which is how local radio announcers can tell you that three inches of rain fell last night in Patchogue and two and a half fell in Sag Harbor.

Hendrickson also writes his observations by hand, and the information is entered in a log at the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, North Carolina. Typically, when the television weather reporter says with certainty that July 17 was the hottest day in 100 years, or that there was a freak snowstorm on this date in 1951, she is relying on the historical record compiled by Hendrickson and other “co-op observers.” When utilities figure out load forecasts, they turn to weather observers’ data, too. When scientists look for evidence of global warming and ozone depletion, they do the same.

“Weather observers have been there to provide for holes in the data that we get from weather stations at airports,” says Mike Wyllie, the chief meteorologist at the forecast office in Upton. “We’d only have coarse data without them. They provide invaluable information about flooding and drought. We wouldn’t know when to conserve water resources, for example, without actual ground truths.” It is just before 8 a.m. when I come upon Hendrickson gathering some ground truths of his own. It is an overcast but bright morning, and he is in his backyard, peering into a two-and-a-half-foot-long green cylinder in whose mouth sits a funnel. The grass is damp, but aside from that there is little evidence of precipitation, and even that moisture might be dew, or something blown in off the ocean a few streets over.

“This is a standard rain gauge,” Hendrickson explains, taking it apart and noting with surprise how full it is. “Wow! I can see that we had one hell of a rain last night. It’s the heaviest rain we’ve had in a couple of years. 3.79 inches, it is.”

As he recalibrates the gauge, the phone hanging from his belt rings, and Hendrickson unclips it and puts it to his ear. There are no salutations, no small talk. “It didn’t wake me up,” he says. “I thought maybe an inch, but it’s almost four. 3.79. ‘Bye.”

Hendrickson turns to me. “That was the Department of Environmental Conservation. So many people have built homes near the ocean that the department is concerned about runoff from all those cesspools.”

Hendrickson turns to a pair of thermometers sitting in a white louvered cabinet five feet off the ground. These measure the high and low temperatures of the past 24 hours, supplementing an electronic thermometer that sends data directly to a monitor inside the house.

The phone rings again. “Five inches in Montauk? The lighthouse will wash away.” Hendrickson hangs up. It was his son, who also observes weather. While he talks, Hendrickson is walking into his house to call the forecast office, but before he can do that, the phone rings yet again. “Yeah, 3.79. What did you get?” “That was the Agriculture Department,” he tells me, hanging up. “They always call during growing season.”

In his small, neatly cluttered study, its walls lined with all the awards Hendrickson has been given by the National Weather Service over the years-40 years of service, 60 years of service, 70 years of service, and, most recently, the Environmental Hero Award-he records his observations on a data sheet. That done, he dials up the forecast office to file his report, just as he has done every morning since he was 19 years old. “Good morning, this is Bridgehampton. I didn’t wash away last night.” He sings out a string of numbers: “85.67. 71 now. Wind out of the southeast. Calm. 3.79. Steady barometer. 29.92.” Cradling the phone once more, Hendrickson is a free man for the next 11 and a half hours, when his internal weather bell will chime again.

In another corner of New York state, in a small town a few hours down from Canada along the Hudson River, Paul Little has been mirroring Hendrickson’s efforts. Little, a high school science teacher, considers himself a relatively new co-op observer-his records date back only to 1981, when he took over from one of his students who was going off to college. “People have a really inaccurate memory of what the weather was doing unless someone is writing it down,” Little says. “With 20 years of data I can look back and tell them, No, August wasn’t a particularly cold month, or Yes, we had more snow this March than any in two decades.”

While that kind of knowledge has obvious conversational value, Little points out that weather memory is more than a party trick. “My records can be subpoenaed by the courts,” he explains. He mentions a local case that gained national attention when two sled-dog owners whose animals had frozen to death argued that the cold weather had come on suddenly and caught them by surprise. The district attorney, using Little’s weather logs, proved that they were wrong.

For the most part, though, observing the weather offers little in the way of drama. It’s the kind of routine, selfless labor that appears to belong more to Jefferson’s day than to our own. Our long hours at work and in the car, our peripatetic lives, our essential disconnection from the land, and our sense of entitlement make this work seem quaint, and impossible. “It’s getting harder and harder to get people to do this,” says Dean Sondag, who manages the cooperative program in Portland, Oregon. “I put up posters in local post offices and go door-to-door looking for volunteers. But when I knock on someone’s door and ask them if they’ll stay at home and watch this weather equipment and record the data and call it in to the Weather Service, and that they won’t get paid, they just laugh at me.”

The humor of it, though, is lost on volunteers like Paul Little, who has seen his efforts end up saving lives. In addition to keeping track of the weather that was, Little pays attention to the weather that will be. It’s not that he’s a forecaster-“I always have to tell people that all I know is what’s happened, not what’s going to occur”-but he is the forecaster’s advance man, looking for signs of weather danger and relaying it to officials who broadcast storm alerts. In his 20 years, Little has spotted a good number of severe thunderstorms and a couple of fast-moving ice jams. “The National Weather Service has all that radar and all those computers,” Little says, “but some things can be seen better by people like myself. They like to tell us that we’re their eyes.”

The body metaphor is particularly apt. These days it is commonplace to think of the government-our government-as something apart from ourselves. It’s as though we are all suffering a kind of dualism, where we no longer experience ourselves as part of the body politic. Quietly, and without self-promotion, the weather observers set a different example. In material terms, the National Weather Service notes, they “net the public more per dollar expended than any other government service in the world,” and they “donate more than a million hours each year to obtain weather data.” But just as important, the agency credits them with creating “a network of the people, by the people, and for the people.” This, as much as weather observation itself, is their direct line, and ours, to Jefferson’s democracy.

And, in its small way, this is, too: For more than 40 years Richard Hendrickson, a dyed-in-the-wool Republican and gun dealer, has been showing up at zoning board meetings and planning board meetings in his town, using weather data to point out the environmental costs of overdevelopment. Hendrickson also uses the same data to show that global warming is a real and local phenomenon. Because he has this information, because he has collected it for us, Hendrickson considers it his public duty to share it. In other words, the true heirs of Jefferson do not simply collect the truth from the ground up. They tell it, too.


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