Cooperative Weather Observer Program...
The backbone of the nation's climatology
Updated around 930 to 10 AM Daily
The Cooperative Weather Observer Program is the systematic method by which daily climatological information is obtained across the nation. This is made possible by volunteers who take daily weather observations using a variety of instruments, recording the highest and lowest temperatures and precipitation amounts for a 24 hour period, usually at 700 AM.
Cooperative Weather Observers come from all walks of life. In the midlands of South Carolina volunteers include a retired aircraft engineer, an optometrist, a water plant, a fire department, radio station personnel, pharmacists, and several women who manage family businesses from their homes.
Observing weather often becomes a family tradition. The National Weather Service in Columbia has one family that has been observing and recording the weather in their area since 1893. The tradition was passed from father to daughter upon his death. On the daughter's death, the responsibility of observing and recording the daily weather was passed to a niece who continues the family tradition today.
The longest record as a volunteer weather observer is held by Mr. Edward G. Stoll who took observations in Nebraska for 76 years. In South Carolina, Mr. James Faris of Catawba was honored posthumously for nearly 60 years of weather observing. To date, his family continues this tradition beginning their 91st year.
The Cooperative Weather Observing program was born from John Companius Holm's observations in 1644 and 1645. Others who kept detailed weather reports included George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin. Thomas Jefferson saw the need for a network of weather reports and in 1776 began to recruit volunteers across Virginia, establishing a network of reports by 1816.
Another pioneer of the cooperative weather program was Joseph Henry. As the secretary of the newly created Smithsonian Institution in 1849, Henry established a network of some 150 volunteer weather observers. The Smithsonian supplied observers with instructions, forms, and in some cases instruments. The observers mailed in monthly reports that included temperature, winds, cloud conditions, and precipitation. As the reports were received, the information was compiled and in 1861 the first of two volumes of climatic data and storm observations were published based on reports from 1854 to 1859. In the mid 1850's, Henry had worked out an arrangement with telegraph stations in major cities along telegraph lines from New York to New Orleans. The daily telegraph reports enabled Henry to update weather conditions on a large color coded weather map displayed in the Smithsonian. In addition to displaying current weather conditions at the Smithsonian, Henry shared the telegraph dispatches with the Washington Evening Star newspaper which began publishing daily weather for nearly 20 cities in 1857. Henry foresaw the need for a much broader system of Smithsonian storm warnings, and in 1870 convinced Congress to pass a bill putting storm warnings (and later, weather forecasts) in the hands of the U.S. Army Signal Service. In 1874, the Army Signal Service took over the volunteer weather observer system as well. (1)
By 1890, Congress saw the value of the network of weather observations and established not only the Weather Bureau but a network of volunteer weather observers every 25 miles in order to estimate rainfall with a higher degree of accuracy. Today, there are more than 11,000 volunteer Cooperative Weather Observers taking readings in all 50 states.
The reports from Cooperative Weather Observers are used constantly to answer questions and guide public agencies, agricultural and commercial activities, and individuals. Their records are critical in establishing temperature averages and extremes and rainfall information. The reports also form a basis for preparedness for severe events such as flooding.
(1) "Joseph Henry's Grand Meteorological Crusade", Frank Millikan, WeatherWise Oct/Nov 1997