Wednesday, May 18, 2011


Washington Island, Wisconsin -

Several times this winter a sheet summarizing Washington Island weather data appeared at our Ferry Line office front desk, delivered, I later learned, by John Delwiche.

Interested in following up on what constitutes an official weather observer, I later learned that both John and his wife Anne have the title Weather Cooperative Observers, meaning they have officially been recognized and given responsibilities in observations by the National Weather Bureau office in Green Bay. Their data is captured by computer at the Green Bay office, which then feeds in to a much larger national data bank of weather observations.

Becoming a National Weather Service Cooperative observer volunteer requires the following, according to the Cooperative Observer Program website:
  * Dedication to public service
  * Attention to detail
  * Ability to learn and perform daily duties
  * Willingness to allow NWS to place measuring instruments on your property
  *  Willingness to allow at least one visit per year from a NWS representative

I had briefly met Anne and John once or twice in the past several years, but I took this opportunity to learn more about them and their role as volunteer weather observers.

John is a retired mechanical engineer who began with Larson Canning in Green Bay, but spent much of his career at one of the paper mills.  He and Anne live in a very comfortable, recently constructed home along the island's East Side Road.  Through ample window openings in all rooms they're able to pursue their hobby of birding (and many birds were about while I was there) while enjoying the fantastic views of surrounding fields and sky.  A number of bird feeders were on poles a short distance from their home, and near the top of the rise at the far end of the field was a metal tower.

Birding and weather observations are related pursuits, and the Delwiches had in the past participated in recording weather observations using a basic home weather set as volunteers for Project Feeder Watch, in which their bird count and type and weather data contributed to a larger collection of data.

But it was the new and different environment with its temperature swings and winds that captured John's interest, combined with the chance opportunity in late 2008 to take over duties from retiring Observer, Don Cunningham.

A significant nudge toward observing weather an official capacity was the fact that Anne's father, Herbert H. Bomalaski, was a meteorologist for the National Weather Bureau for 41 years and head of the Green Bay Weather Bureau office for many of those years.  Fifty years ago this March, according to the Green Bay Press Gazette, Mr. Bomalaski received the Meritorious Service Award from the Secretary of Commerce for his studies in "Growing Degree Days."  His contribution codified temperatures during the growing period for vegetables, providing a system of predictability for both canners and growers, and his work was credited with saving the industry here and abroad thousands of dollars.

It is fair to say, then, that both Anne and John take great pride in their role as official Weather Cooperative Observers.

Viewing web postings for National Weather Cooperative Observers across the nation (some are institutions, but many are generational family members) I found that the appointment of a local weather observer often leads to decades of volunteer reporting.  While this may not always be the case, the record speaks to the general class of people who become observers for reasons of occupational interest, hobby, or curiosity about the environment, and then dedicate time and effort toward capturing numbers for our federal weather agency.  

John's tower was originally intended as a future base for his amateur radio station antenna, but it currently supports several weather instruments.

"I wanted a much higher tower for my radio station," John said, pointing to several tower sections lying in the field near the house, "but the government standards for recording wind are very specific.  Instruments must be 33 feet above ground for the anemometer, no more, no less."

Other recording instruments such as rain gauge and temperature gauge are mounted on pedestals nearer the ground, within one hundred feet or so of the back door.  The siting of these instruments had to meet approval by the Green Bay field office for the National Weather Bureau.

Neat, hand entries into a log of weather data, and the installation of two indoor analog gauges for wind direction and speed in a vintage upright radio cabinet, further revealed the meticulous nature of these two weather observers.

An exception to "meticulous" might be the wire Anne pointed out, laughing, that John strung from the the rear of the radio cabinet gauges to a bedroom loft above one end of the room.

"I wanted wind instruments badly, and I pestered the hell out of them," John said.  "The National Weather Service has gone digital with gauges at their offices, so these analog gauges became a surplus set. They were formerly at the Rapid City, SD weather station."

As far as John was aware, few Co-op Observers are issued wind instruments, but in this case, the U.S. Coast Guard had first chance for such equipment and they expressed interest in capturing additional wind speed data in this part of the lake.  Had those gauges been digital, according to John, both high and low speeds could then be automatically recorded.  However, since they are analog (with dial indicators similar to an old auto speedometer) John ran that wire from the radio cabinet to a second gauge set in their bedroom loft, one way to monitor peak wind gusts at night during a storm while lying in bed.

 John showed me a stack of old Washington Island weather logs passed along to him, noting the names of several island observers who preceded him:  Don Cunningham;  Gabrielle Daniels;  Marvin Andersen.  There may have been others.

How did he and Anne happen to find their way to Washington Island for retirement?

John pointed across the field toward Island Camping, the privately owned campground on the adjacent 40 acres.

"We came to the island one weekend in July for a HAM radio round-up, and I was so impressed with the capabilities of my small radio from this location.  I could get a signal out to just about anywhere."

It may have been as important that Anne had been enrolled in classes at Sievers School, creating another strong island connection.

Is it the limestone bedrock, or the fact we are located in a large body of water with little outside interference, that makes it such a good place for transmitting radio signals, I wondered?  

"It could be," he replied.  "I'm not sure what it is, but with this little set, it's amazing the reach it has.  I suppose relative isolation may also have something to do with our choosing this location."   

He pointed to the radio set on his living room table, a deceptively small package not much larger than a thick book, maybe 10 x 6 x 3 inches, with a retractable antenna.

John said that he became a licensed radio operator at age 11, but because his voice had not yet changed, when he spoke over the airwaves listeners thought they were talking to a girl.  That caused John to learn code so he could communicate without speaking, and he claims to have used code for his radio communications ever since.  His call sign is K9IY.

John heads to Dayton, OH, this week for a radio operator conference, the largest in the nation, at which both commercial and amateur operators will be present.   While he is absent, Anne will take over weather reporting duties.

 - Dick Purinton

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