THE OBSERVERS: Hundreds of volunteers documenting America's weather history


By Denise Gamino 

DIME BOX — Several years ago, Virginia Shows hired a handyman to trim some trees in her yard. He worked for a few days and then had a question: “Do you stand out there and smoke?” he asked. 

“I don’t smoke,” Shows said. “Why do you ask that?” 

“Well, you’ve got a big ashtray in your yard.” The 3-foot, silver canister on legs in Shows’ yard in Dime Box isn’t for cigarette butts. Instead, it collects rain for the National Weather Service. Anytime it rains or mists, Shows goes outside at 7 a.m. and pokes a long stick into the tall rain gauge. She notes the measurement, goes inside and emails the information to the federal government’s regional Weather Forecast Office in New Braunfels. Then she’s off to her half-day job teaching literature to middle school students at the Dime Box public school. 

(Jay Godwin photo)Weather watcher Virginia Shows keeps an eye on the sky next to her National Weather Service-issued ‘recording rain gauge’ in her backyard in Dime Box. (A close-up of its label, inset.) Shows is one of hundreds of volunteers in Texas collecting data for the Cooperative Observer Program.  

Shows is one of the federal government’s 654 official volunteer weather observers in Texas. They are part of the Cooperative Observer Program in operation since 1890. About 50 of these volunteer observers for the National Weather Service live in the 14-county region served by Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative. Nationwide, more than 8,700 volunteers gather weather observation data for this weather service program. Most are motivated to serve because of a keen With an avid interest in the weather and geared up to gather the — in Central Texas and nationwide — serve the 125-year-old Cooperative interest in weather. 

The Cooperative Observer Program provides the federal government with longrunning records of weather observations at specific sites. The data is used in a variety of ways, including monitoring the drought, researching effects of weather and climate on crops, developing agricultural growing season zones, and planning roads to withstand flooding. 

Shows and other Cooperative Observers “form the backbone of America’s climate record,” said Cory Van Pelt, a National Weather Service hydro-meteorological technician in New Braunfels who supervises the volunteers. “Their observations came into existence long before routine aviation observations at airports, so they give us a picture of the country’s weather and climate back to the late 1800s.” 

Shows carries on a long family tradition with her duties as a daily weather observer in Dime Box. Her maternal uncle, Gerhard Kissman, was the local weather observer for the National Weather Service from 1982-1988. Then, Shows’ mother, Alene Cottrell, took over the Cooperative Observer volunteer duties and sent weather information to the federal government for about 25 years before illness prevented her from continuing. Cottrell, who died in April at age 88, also served as the Dime Box postmaster for more than 34 years. 

Shows, who shares a large back yard with the house where her mother lived, assisted her mother for a few years and then became the official Cooperative Observer in 2011. 

Around Dime Box, everyone likes to talk to Shows about the weather. Someone always asks about rain levels. One of Shows’ friends teases her when she receives more rain than Shows. “Well, it doesn’t matter because this is the official,” Shows tells her. “This is what goes to Washington.” 

Shows’ husband, John, also joked about her weather job before his death in 2007, sometimes threatening to pour water into the weather service rain gauge. He had a ranch in Beat Five (a dot on the map between Dime Box and Giddings), and if the ranch got more rain than her backyard gauge, he always had an explanation: “It rains on the Baptists, and it sprinkles on the Lutherans.” 

Shows grew up in Dime Box and has taught school here for 45 years. She spent more than 30 years with kindergarten students. She has an undergraduate and a master’s degree in education from Texas A&M University. She has taught just about every subject offered at the Dime Box school district. 

“Cooperative Observers really do come from all walks of life,” the weather services’ Van Pelt said. “Farmers, ranchers, weather enthusiasts, business owners, city governments, federal agencies, state parks, retirees, doctors, lawyers, teachers, TV meteorologists, current and former National Weather Service employees and many others. 

“A common thread is an interest in weather, and a sense of pride in serving their country by providing critical data that helps their fellow citizens and becomes a permanent part of America’s weather history.” 

(Jay Godwin photo)At the National Weather Service office in New Braunfels, hydrometeorological technician Cory Van Pelt scans the sky next to a temperature sensor that measures the maximum and minimum temperatures during a 24-hour period. Cooperative Observers in the Bluebonnet service area report to Van Pelt, who lives just north of Luling. He is a Bluebonnet member. 
Van Pelt, who lives just north of Luling, is a Bluebonnet member. For a few years, Van Pelt served as an official Cooperative Observer for the weather service in his hometown of Sabinal, an hour west of San Antonio. When he moved to Alaska in 2002, his mother took over the weather-watching duties. He was hired by the forecast office in New Braunfels in 2012, just in time to present his mother with a 10-year service award for her Cooperative Observer work. 

Individual weather observers can make a difference, Van Pelt said. For example, during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, an insurance company refused Continued from page to pay some Kansas farmers for their drought losses. But a court used the rainfall records of a Cooperative Observer in the affected area to order the insurance company to pay the farmers what they were owed. 

“Without the data collected by that volunteer, the farmers may have lost everything,” Van Pelt said. 

The National Weather Service has two devices in Shows’ yard. The tall rain gauge that she checks daily is a government hand-me-down that was used by her uncle. Nearby is a solar-powered electronic recorder that detects changes in precipitation of one hundredth of an inch every 15 minutes. It looks like a small white rocket ship. Shows is 5 feet 5 inches tall, and the white gauge is about an inch taller. Once a month, she opens this device, inserts a USB flash drive and downloads the digital rain data, which takes about 15 minutes. She then emails it to the federal weather office in New Braunfels. 

Before the weather service converted to digital reporting in 2011-2012, Shows and her mother had to use a more hands-on method of reporting precipitation to the National Weather Service. Shows measured rainfall at 7 a.m. and then reported by telephone to an automated weather data collection system. 

She punched in her Dime Box location code, 412462, then punched in the type of precipitation using this code: 1 for rain, 2 for freezing rain, 3 for drizzle, 4 for freezing drizzle, 5 for snow, 6 for snow pellets, 7 for snow grains, 8 for ice pellets and 9 for hail. She entered rainfall amounts using no decimals, so that 2.10 inches of rain was entered as 210. In addition, Shows previously had to keep a paper chart of the daily amount of precipitation that included the time of day when it rained or snowed the hardest. To determine that, “I just looked out the window,” she said. 

When there is frozen precipitation, Shows must chip ice from the tall, silver rain gauge and bring it inside to melt so she can measure the amount. If there is snow, she has to use a household ruler to measure the snowfall on a flat surface, such as her outdoor picnic table. 

Almost all volunteer weather observers use a computer to submit their data, but a handful in Texas and the other states still mail paper forms with weather information that must be manually entered into the National Weather Service’s data system, Van Pelt said. 

The weather service originally paid a small stipend to the observers because of the time — and sometimes gas money — needed to collect data. With automation and federal budget cuts, the program returned to its original volunteer-only roots. 

June always brings varying amounts of rain to Dime Box. Shows and her mother measured 13.26 inches of rain in June 2004, the highest monthly rainfall in Dime Box observation history. Just five years later, Shows measured 0.26 inches for June 2009, the third driest month in Dime Box history. She measured 39.33 inches of total rain for 2014. 

Shows has a personal interest in the Dime Box weather that goes beyond the family history of observing weather for the government. She and her three sons own a Dime Box ranch that’s been in their family for more than 130 years. 

“This community and farming and ranching are very important to me, and the weather is crucial to our ranch’s success and our local economy,” Shows said. “It is an honor to serve the weather bureau and my community in accurately reporting our local results.” 

Just don’t try to tell her you got more rain than she did.

Want to be a Weather Watcher?

The National Weather Service does not currently need additional Cooperative Observer Program volunteers to monitor weather in the 14 counties served by Bluebonnet but encourages people to get on the waiting list.

About four Cooperative Observers resign or retire in each state annually, statistics show. The National Weather Service strives to have a volunteer weather watcher every 25 miles, and sometimes a new observer location is created. The weather service prefers that volunteers own the property where the government installs the monitoring equipment, but renters and leaseholders are also encouraged to apply.

To get on the waiting list, contact the regional Weather Forecast Office: 2090 Airport Road, New Braunfels, TX 78130, Attn: Data Acquisition Program Manager.

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