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May 12, 2021

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Upgrade in the forecast for weather station at 78th Street Heritage Farm

Vancouver’s been home to meteorological observations nearly 200 years

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Annette Vary-Getty of Washington State University looks over the current tower of a weather station at the 78th Street Heritage Farm on a recent Friday morning. The tower is set to get a 21st century upgrade.
Annette Vary-Getty of Washington State University looks over the current tower of a weather station at the 78th Street Heritage Farm on a recent Friday morning. The tower is set to get a 21st century upgrade. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Writing columns of weather data in a registry was part of a physician’s duties at Fort Vancouver in the 1830s. These days, Annette Vary-Getty walks out of her office once a week, heads across the 78th Street Heritage Farm parking lot, and downloads temperature and rainfall figures on a flash drive.

That’s just one example of how local weather observations have changed in 190 years. The responsibility for record-keeping transitioned from the Hudson’s Bay Company to the U.S. Army to the Weather Bureau to the National Weather Service.

And in an interesting twist, meteorologists no longer measure rainfall by the pound; they weigh it in inches.

More meteorological changes are coming to the Heritage Farm, where Washington State University’s weather station will be getting an upgrade. The installation is part of AgWeatherNet, the university’s statewide system of 195 automated stations.

The National Weather Service also has a supplementary monitoring station at the Heritage Farm, 1919 N.E. 78th St. It’s a legacy of the Weather Bureau’s move in 1895 from Vancouver Barracks to the former Clark County Poor Farm.

Vancouver’s AgWeatherNet site will get its upgrade in about three months. The goal is “to increase the accuracy of the data,” field meteorologist Jonathan Contezac said. Based in Mount Vernon, he oversees the WSU weather network in 19 Western Washington counties.

The upgrades include some duplicate sensors, providing backup if one fails, he said. Comparing two readings also will ensure that the measurements are consistent. The most visible upgrade will be a 33-foot tower. It will replace a 10-foot mast, installed in 2008, with several metal branches providing perches for weather instruments.

The new tower will raise the anemometer to 10 meters, “which is the standard height for wind monitoring,” Contezac said via email. The Vancouver project will cost about $8,000. The network is supported by state and federal funding.

All stations in the network measure wind speed and direction, air temperature, soil temperature, relative humidity, rainfall and solar radiation. Updated information is automatically transmitted every 15 minutes. People can view the weather conditions in locations across the state at weather.wsu.edu.

Because of the historical setting, the Clark County Historic Preservation Commission had to approve the project. The Hazel Dell property was the site of the Clark County Poor Farm from 1873 to 1944. It is listed on national, state and county heritage registers.

The WSU upgrade won’t affect the Weather Service site. They don’t share data, although there is an operational relationship between WSU and the federal weather agency. WSU Clark County Extension provides the site for the National Weather Service station. Vary-Getty, who collects the federal weather data once a week, manages the extension office.

Vary-Getty’s weekly downloads are more about long-term climate records than tomorrow’s forecast.

“I do look at this and see patterns I can follow. But there’s no way I can predict the weather,” Vary-Getty said during a recent Friday morning data download.

The National Weather Service has other sites at Portland-area airports, including Vancouver’s Pearson Field, that are used for forecasts. The Heritage Farm site “is invaluable, historically,” said Gerald Macke, a team leader at the agency’s Portland office. “It’s been there since 1895. A hundred-plus years of precipitation and temperature information is priceless.”

Doctors’ work

One piece of gear has been there for at least half a century. It’s a wooden box that houses a modern thermometer system. A metal strip across the front identifies the box as property of the U.S. Weather Bureau, a name that was retired 51 years ago.

When you include the Hudson’s Bay Company era, Vancouver has an uninterrupted record of serious weather-watching that goes back almost two centuries. Martin Adams researched that chapter of local history a few years ago as a museum technician at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site. Adams identified Meredith Gairdner as a trail-blazing weatherman. The Scotsman arrived at Fort Vancouver in 1833, a year after earning his medical degree from the University of Edinburgh.

“I think a lot of physicians back then had other interests in the natural and physical sciences, which may account for why medical doctors were generally tasked with meteorological observations,” Adams said in an email.

The U.S. Army took a similar approach. In 1818, Army Surgeon General Joseph Lovell ordered Army doctors to keep weather diaries, Adams wrote in a 2017 National Park Service publication. The U.S. Army arrived at Fort Vancouver in May 1849, and the post surgeon started filing weather reports later that year.

A former officer who had served at the Vancouver Army post in the 1850s wound up refining the national weather system in 1870. President Ulysses S. Grant authorized the Army’s Signal Service Corps to take over the role of America’s weather observers. The original telegraph network went as far west as Wyoming.

Doctors at about 50 posts, including Vancouver Barracks, continued to send weather reports to the Army surgeon general into the 1890s, Adams wrote. That’s just about the time the U.S. Weather Bureau was established in 1891. The agency was renamed the National Weather Service in 1970 when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was created.

While several agencies and organizations have been involved, their combined 190 years or so of weather reporting might be Washington’s longest-running science undertaking.

“I can’t think of another location with that continuity of scientific observations,” said Bob Cromwell, chief of interpretation at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.

There are even more extensive records in the Hudson’s Bay Company archives, although they’re no longer current. Moose Factory, in Ontario, logged 203 years of weather data that went back to 1730.

The weight of water

While almost 200 years of weather records can be significant, not all of it is immediately useful. Adams pointed to an archived image of Fort Vancouver’s January 1838 Thermometrical Register. When those Hudson’s Bay Company weather watchers wrote down the monthly moisture total, they measured it in pounds. The January 1838 entry for precipitation was “6 lbs avourdupois.”

Adams recalled his initial reaction when he saw the January entry of 6 pounds of precipitation: “I don’t even know what that means!” He would like to learn how to convert that measuring system into our familiar inches-of-rain standard.

As it turns out, one of the rain gauges at the Heritage Farm also weighs precipitation, but modern meteorologists don’t have to worry about converting the scale readings into inches. It’s done automatically.

“It’s a digital scale,” said Macke, the regional Weather Service official. “Its computer calculates weight to hundredths of an inch” of rain.

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