By MIKE LANGLOIS Press-Republican (March 27, 2016)
SARANAC — When people recall Tropical Storm Irene, they tend to describe the severe flooding, extensive property damage and inconvenient power outages.
Craig Von Bargen recounts a Category 3 storm resulting locally in 60-mph wind gusts, 6.75 inches of rainfall and a recorded low air pressure of 942 millibars.
The Saranac man is a volunteer with the National Weather Service’s Cooperative Observer Program, a network of 8,700 volunteers nationwide who record and report the weather daily to their regional Weather Service office.
As part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Weather Service provides weather, water and climate-data forecasts and warnings for the protection of life and property.
NOT JUST A HOBBY
Each morning for the last 18 years, Von Bargen has reported his official weather observations to the Burlington office.
He has kept an informal journal chronicling weather observations and personal asides for 28 years.
“I would not call it just a hobby,” he said. “Most people get their weather for the day from a five-minute morning newscast. I go to the National Weather Service’s website.
“Meteorologists are updating what is going on in the atmosphere and giving you background (weather) information.”
Established under the Organic Act of 1890, the Cooperative Observer Program has two specific goals.
First, to provide daily maximum and minimum temperature, snowfall and 24-hour precipitation totals to define long-term climate change for the United States.
Second, it collects observational meteorological data in real time to support Weather Service forecast and weather-warning capability.
Since America’s earliest days, citizens have kept a close eye on the weather.
Thomas Jefferson made regular observations at Monticello from 1772 to 1778. George Washington also took regular notes, with the last entry in his diary recorded the day before he died.
Benjamin Franklin was one of the first to observe that North American storms tend to move from west to east and predicted that a storm’s course could be plotted.
Von Bargen’s interest in the weather began at an early age.
His father, Richard Von Bargen, a career U.S. Air Force air traffic controller, was tasked with monitoring the weather for military aircraft. It was the late 1960s, and the use of radar technology was limited to the military and public airline companies.
Periodically, Craig and his four brothers received a call from their dad at work.
“He’d notice a line of thunderstorms coming our way and tell us to close the garage door or the home’s windows,” he said.
“My dad had a strong interest in the weather, and he passed that on to the boys. We (still) talk about the weather. Not just, ‘Hey, nice day today,’ but more specific features.”
Craig has invested in a professional weather station for his small farm.
Costing $600, the modern instruments are compact and can measure wind speed, rainfall amounts, temperature, dew point and barometric pressure.
The system is connected to his personal computer, where the data is stored and, subsequently, transmitted to the Weather Service in real time.
While some observers still fill out paper forms and drop them in the mail, the majority of volunteers utilize modern technology to report their findings.
The daily observation of weather patterns is more than an exercise in intellectual curiosity for Craig.
As a buildings and grounds supervisor for the University of Vermont Health Network, Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital in Plattsburgh, he applies the data to decisions affecting employee schedules and the ordering of seasonal materials for the facility.
Whether tracking a potential nor’easter or a string of hot, dry summer days, knowing the weather makes for a more efficient and safer workplace, he said.
“In the wintertime especially, I need to know specifically when it is going to snow,” he said.
“What is the real probability of that 3-to-5-inch forecast happening? We will watch the (Weather Service) radar and watch when a storm is coming in.
“Based on an in-depth forecast, I can plan the work.”
On a larger scale, the data reported by volunteers is used in agricultural planning, engineering and environmental assessments, utilities planning and, at times, legal proceedings.
The data supplied by Observer Program volunteers is critical in understanding the extent of human impacts on the climate, said Andy Nash, meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service in Burlington.
“These daily observations are not only a document of what’s happening in your backyard,” he said.
“It provides a record for that area that no one else is recording. You are creating a unique data set that will be used by the weather service and climate researchers. Those readings are going to have a positive effect for your community and for the greater good.”
Here are some of Craig Von Bargen’s notes on weather in his neck of the woods:
Feb. 14, 2016: -19 F. Coldest low temperature of winter 2015-2016.
Dec. 24, 2015: 68 F. Icing on the cake this past fall !
November 2015: Average temp was 38; high temp was 71 F on November 6.
Oct. 3, 2014: Peak Fall Colors, Week stretch of Indian Summer about to end, today 74 F.
April 29, 2014: .55″ rain overnight followed by .95″ On May 1.
March 20, 2012: Spring peepers are out. 75 F.
Nov. 23, 2011: Received 10″ snow although Forecast was for 3”.
June 1, 2011: Has been cool wet spring, however filled barn with Hay on June 19, Beautiful day 73 F.
Craig Von Bargen talks about how his official National Weather Service Rain Gauge works in Saranac on Tuesday. Von Bargen reports every morning before 7 a.m. how much rain has fallen to the National Weather Service. ROB FOUNTAIN/STAFF PHOTO