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Weather service hoping to recruit volunteers to collect data

The National Weather Service wants to recruit more cooperative weather observers across the region, including the Bemidji area, to keep daily weather statistics. Currently, the weather service is not keeping accurate snowfall totals in Bemidji. In this file photo, a City of Detroit Lakes, Minn., road grader plows snow on Willow Street near the Washington Avenue intersection on Nov. 24, 2010. File photo by Brian Basham/Forum Communications Co.1 / 2
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It sounds like a help wanted classified, one that wouldn't attract many applicants:

Current vacancy for detail-oriented person to trudge outside during all types of weather, particularly snowstorms and rain showers. Position requires access to an area exposed to the elements and providing reports of daily measurements. No pay. Long-term commitment needed.

If that job description doesn't turn you off, the National Weather Service is looking for you.

The weather service, stationed in Grand Forks, N.D., wants to recruit volunteer cooperative weather observers across northern Minnesota, particularly in the Bemidji area, and eastern North Dakota.

"We rely on a lot of volunteers," said Greg Gust, a meteorologist in Grand Forks.

"Bemidji and Park Rapids are more truly Minnesota sites," he said of the challenges in recruiting volunteers in the area. "We need to have that connectivity so the information we're putting out here is applicable."

While the rewards may not appear obvious, cooperative weather observers play a large role in the weather service producing accurate and timely daily reports, according to weather officials.

Since taking over the program in 1995, the weather service's observer ranks has been decimated by retirements.

The office once had 120 observers collecting weather data for 18 counties in northwestern Minnesota and 17 eastern North Dakota. Now there are 70 observers - 30 in Minnesota and 40 in North Dakota.

"In the last 16 years, we have lost almost half of our observers," said Mark Ewens, senior hydrometeorologist technician for the Grand Forks-based weather service. "We have an aging observer network. We're losing people."

He said the need for trained weather observers is "crucial" to collecting data for the general public and agencies at the county, state and federal levels.

When federal agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Department of Homeland Security requests weather data for specific areas, Ewens said his agency can't provide it without the help of volunteers.

"That hamstrings us and local emergency managers," he said.

As a hypothetic example, heavy snows dropped on Northern Minnesota in April 2008 but detailed weather information was scarce.

While Itasca State Park received more than 43 inches of snow that month, Ewens said heavier snow fell to the north. If Beltrami County and Bemidji were to seek disaster aid - to pay for excessive snow removal and damage left by a storm - from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, officials required accurate and detailed data.

Ewens said data was lacking in the area. Without details, the weather service and county officials use estimates - and the lack of specificity doesn't make the grade for federal agencies.

After cities and counties run out of money during and after weather disasters, they look to the state for help. In turn, states seek disaster aid funding from the federal government, where agencies need statistics to determine how abnormal a weather event might be.

When a summer storm dropped unprecedented rains in June 2002 and caused flooding in Roseau and Grand Forks, precipitation totals provided a threshold for seeking disaster funding, Ewens said.

Local benefit

Beryl Wernberg, the 911 communications supervisor and emergency management director for Beltrami County, said cooperative weather observers could help both the Sheriff's Office and the traveling public.

At 3,056 square miles, Beltrami County has a large footprint, and weather conditions can vary from one corner of the county to another. In the winter, there may be multiple bands of snow impacting the region - a detail public officials could use to carry out their jobs and inform residents.

Reliable, accurate information would be valuable, she said.

"That would be super to know," Wernberg said. "We get calls from people who want to know how much snow we got."

The Sheriff's Office works with Skywarn volunteers and offers training classes for storm spotters each spring. Those storm spotters chase bad weather, providing an early warning network of humans, to help monitor and report turbulent weather.

While the Grand Forks' weather office provides radar and information about potentially dangerous weather, officials there "can't see to the ground," said Wernberg.

The same benefit applies to having volunteer weather observers in place for snow and rain storm totals, she said.

"To know how much rain or snow there is minute-to-minute would be great," Wernberg said.

Since Bemidji serves as a regional center, drawing people from across Northern Minnesota, Wernberg said better weather data provides a public service for the area.

'Not a static thing'

A lack of observers also poses another challenge for the weather service. Without volunteers willing to collect the data, weather service officials said it's difficult to maintain a database with accurate, reliable statistics for historical comparison of conditions.

That makes determining the norm for an area like Bemidji next to impossible without using a range and making an educated guess.

"Climate is not a static thing," Ewens said. "The weather changes over time."

Previously, there were volunteers at the Headwaters Science Center and an automative cold weather test site north of Bemidji. Despite valiant efforts, the weather service said consistent, long-term data collection hasn't been possible.

Two of the biggest recruiting obstacles has been the pay - or lack of it - and time commitment.

"It is a trend in our society that folks expect to be paid," Ewens said. "I understand that, yet the reality is the cooperative program is a volunteer network with its roots all the way back to Colonial America."

And while there is an automated weather observing system at the Bemidji Regional Airport, those types of devices fall short of data needed by the weather service.

To aid in collecting data, the weather service provides volunteer observers with the equipment to measure snow and rain totals. In addition, Ewens said his office maintains the equipment and trains volunteers.

Ideally, measurements are taken between 6 and 8 a.m. each morning. If a volunteer plans to be away, say for vacation, Ewens said they're asked to line up another person to take the daily readings.

For temperature readings, the equipment should be at least 100 feet away from concrete or buildings to prevent false readings, while rain gauges must be in a spot unobstructed by buildings and trees.

And while equipment has helped to automate the collection of weather data, humans still play an important role in providing good locations and taking daily precipitation readings.

"While these (automated) systems can and do collect temperature, wind and barometric pressure, they do not report snowfall and winter precipitation," Ewens said.

Steve Wagner

Grand Forks Herald Editor Steve Wagner can be reached at 701.780.1104 and swagner@gfherald.com. He joined the Herald in April 2013, and previously worked as editor at the Bemidji (Minn.) Pioneer and in several roles -- including news director, investigative reporter and crime reporter - at The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. His reporting experience includes coverage of Dru Sjodin's disappearance and the federal death penalty case for her murderer, Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., along with several investigative projects. In his spare time, Wagner is an avid runner and occasionally writes about his experiences on his blog, Addicted to Running.

(701) 780-1104
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