National Weather Service United States Department of Commerce

The History of the Cooperative Observer Program

In 1644 and 1655, John Campanius Holm, a Lutheran minister, was the first observer to take systematic observations in the American Colonies.

In 1776, Thomas Jefferson began to recruit volunteer weather observers throughout Virginia. By 1800, there were volunteers in five other states across the newborn nation. They included Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New York and North Carolina. In 1891, the network of voluntary weather observers across the country had grown to 2,000 stations.

In 1849, the growing volunteer force was taken over by the Smithsonian Institution.

In 1933, the Secretary of Agriculture, Henry Wallace, with a science advisory group, told President Roosevelt that the Cooperative Program is one of the most extraordinary services ever developed, netting the public more per dollar expended than any other government service in the world. That statement is still valid today. It is estimated that their time totals over a million hours a year.

It was not until 1953 that a plan was established to evenly blanket the nation with weather observers. Dr. Helmut Landsberg of the Weather Bureau conducted a study with Iowa State University to establish a method of filling in the open spaces of this volunteer network. As a result of this study, it was determined that there should be one weather station every 25 miles for estimating rainfall within an accuracy tolerance of ten percent.

By 1990, the network had expanded to 10,000 sites. The most recent statistics estimate that there are 12,000 cooperative observers in the United States. Only about a third of them are paid, and the ones that do get paid receive a very small amount.

Climatological records get more valuable with time. The climatological base generated through the efforts of the volunteer Cooperative Weather Observer provides not only the cornerstone of our nation's weather history, but also serves as the primary data for research into global climatic change.

On a local level, the observations received by volunteer observers are fundamental in helping the NWS to protect life and property. Forecasts are often based on observer data, and even warnings for severe weather have been issued based on information received from a volunteer. Once a month, the local weather office collects all the data and sends it to the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, NC. There it is entered into a huge national database that is accessible by the public. A majority of requests for this data come from Attorneys, Insurance Companies, Meteorological Consultants, Businesses (including construction), Utilities, Universities, Transportation, Education, Agriculture and the Media.

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Brief History of U.S. Climatology


Awards of the Cooperative Program

Individual Awards

Two of the more prestigious awards are the Thomas Jefferson award and the John Campanius Holm award. Both were created in 1959 for the National Weather Service to honor cooperative weather observers, and the first of each was presented in 1960. To be eligible for these awards, observers' excellence must include accuracy, promptness, legibility, cooperation, consistency and care of equipment. These things must have been done over a long period of time.

Thomas Jefferson

This award is to honor cooperative weather observers for unusual and outstanding achievements in the field of meteorological observations. It is the highest award the NWS presents to volunteer observers. The award is named for Thomas Jefferson, third president of the US. Jefferson made an almost unbroken series of weather observations from 1776 to 1816. No more than 5 Jefferson awards are given annually. This certificate is signed by the Secretary of Commerce and the Under Secretary for Oceans and Atmosphere. To be eligible for the Jefferson award, a candidate must have received the Holm award at least five years prior, and must still be performing her or his duties in an outstanding manner.

John Campanius Holm

This award is to honor cooperative observers for outstanding accomplishments in the field of meteorological observations. It is named for a Lutheran minister, the first person known to have taken systematic weather observations in the American Colonies. Reverend Holm made observations of climate without the use of instruments in 1644 and 1645, near the present site of Wilmington, Delaware. No more than twenty-five Holm awards are given annually. The certificate is signed by the Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Earl Stewart

This award was named for an observer in Cottage Grove, Oregon. Mr.Stewart completed 75 years of continuous observations in 1992. The criterion for this award is that an observer serve the NWS as an observer for a period of 75 years or more.

Ruby Stufft

In 1991, Mrs. Ruby Stufft of Elsmere, Nebraska, completed 70 years as a cooperative observer. This award was named in her honor, and is presented to any observer attaining 70 years of service.

Albert J. Meyer

The award was named after an observer at Eagle Pass, Texas. In 1870 Mr. Meyer was appointed to establish and direct the "Division of Telegrams and Reports for the Benefit of Commerce," now known as the NWS. Anyone who serves as an observer for 65 years is eligible for this award.

Helmut E. Landsberg

This award was created in 1986 in honor of Dr. Helmut E. Landsberg, one of the preeminent climatologists of our time. This award is presented to all observer who have completed 60 years of service as cooperative observers.

Edward H. Stoll

This award was created and became effective in 1975 in honor of Mr. Edward H. Stoll. Mr. Stoll was the observer at Elwood, Nebraska for over 76 years and was the first to receive the prestigious Stoll award. To receive this award, an observer must have taken observations for 50 years.

The Stoll, Landsberg, Myer, Stufft, and Stewart awards are all signed by the Assistant Administrator of Weather Services (Director of the NWS).

Length of Service awards, emblems and letters

Cooperative observers may be given length-of-service emblems every five years, starting at ten years of service to 50 years of service. There are also length of service certificates that may be issued every 5 years through 50 years. The 10 and 15 year certificates are bronze, the 20 and 25 year are silver, and the 30 through 50 year are gold. 60-year observers and higher will receive a letter signed by the President of the United States.

Institutional Awards

Institutions include schools, power stations, Corps of Engineer dams, local governments, and other entities, where an individual is not identified as the observer. Often, whoever is working at observation time will record the data. Institutions shall receive an award for each 25 years of service. The certificate is signed by the Assistant Administrator for Weather Services and the local official.

Special Service Awards

These are presented from a local level, and may be given for any reason that is appropriate. This may include recognition for an individual who has been the primary observer for many years at an institution, and otherwise would not be officially recognized.