Recording Seven Decades of Nebraska Weather History

Sept. 7, 2016, 6:45 a.m. ·

Gerry Osborn in the backyard at his home in Ainsworth, Nebraska, next to an instrument that records temperatures for the National Weather Service. (Photo by Jack Williams for NET News)

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Recording Nebraska’s weather history is a big task, but a volunteer network spread across the state is up to the task. One volunteer in Ainsworth has been at it for seven decades and says he doesn’t plan to stop anytime soon.

A volunteer network that’s been around since the late 1800’s is still recording Nebraska’s weather history one day at a time.

The National Weather Service’s Cooperative Observer Program is a labor of love for most who are involved with it, but it also serves an important function. It provides a crucial database for road planners, public utilities, manufacturers and agriculture.

One observer, Gerry Osborn of Ainsworth, Nebraska, stands out among the others. He’s faithfully recorded temperatures, rainfall and other weather data for most of 70 years.

Gerry Osborn from Ainsworth, Nebraska, stands in his weather observation room where he records temperatures and other weather data. (Photo by Jack Williams for NET News)

His weather observation room doubles as a laundry room. It’s not high-tech, but it gets the job done. Next to a bottle of detergent is Osborn’s temperature gauge.

“My wife is aghast that I’ll bring anybody in here, but I don’t know how else to do it,” he says.

On the washing machine is a worn book with hand written temperatures and other weather observations. On a nearby shelf is a stack of books that have already been filled with data. Osborn has made this a daily routine for as long as he can remember.

“My mother called me her 'why boy' because I hounded her,” Osborn said. “I was born with that gene I guess, I don’t know. But it’s interesting to me.”

Osborn is 87 years old and started as a cooperative observer back when his father was the postmaster in Ainsworth in the 1940’s. The weather duties were part of his job and young Gerry soon learned how to record the numbers too.

When Gerald Sr. gave up the job 50 years ago, Garry set up a recording station in his own back yard. He’s been recording the weather ever since.

“Cooperative means unpaid and observer means I write down what I see, not predict,” he said. “However I will predict now because I’ve had experience. My batting average is pretty good, it really is.”

Osborn is one of 191 National Weather Service cooperative observers in Nebraska. Nationwide, there are around 10,000 observer sites in all 50 states and U.S. territories. Volunteers record a wide array of common weather data and even more obscure things like soil temperature and how wet a particular snowfall is.

Joni Brand, Cooperative Observer Program coordinator for the National Weather Service in Valley, Nebraska, looks through volunteer observer files. (Photo by Jack Williams for NET News)

At the National Weather Service office in Valley, just outside of Omaha, Joni Brand is in charge of coordinating the observer program. She sits next to a filing cabinet full of information about her volunteers.

“They are the eyes of the National Weather Service to help us with weather information at their location,” Brand said.

A map of Nebraska on the wall is covered in color-coded pins. It shows where each observer is and what they record.

“We try to have one or two observers in every county,” Brand said. “Each one of the pins represents what is at each site. For example, one might have precipitation and temperature readings. Another one might just have precipitation readings.”

Up until a few years ago, the National Weather service paid observers. It wasn’t much, about $15 every quarter, but now observers do it for free. Although there are automated weather recording sites across the state, the weather service depends on the observers who provide important “ground truth”, human eyes reporting what’s actually going on at a particular place.

Weather professionals use observer data to predict conditions in the short term, but also use the information for long-term analysis.

“The payoff, it’s going to be in some cases a long time from now,” said David Pearson, a National Weather Service hydrologist in Valley. “If you start a station today, you can’t know what the average or normal weather is. It’s not for three decades that you can actually look back and say now we know what happens here routinely and we can compare against it.”

Back in Ainsworth, Gerry Osborn is peering into a metal cylinder that catches and measures water when it rains.

The book that Gerry Osborn uses to keep hand-written records of weather information for the National Weather Service. (Photo by Jack Williams for NET News)

“There’s a measuring stick that you drop down and you see it has an inner tube,” Osborn said. “Very seldom, but just in case there is too much, it overflows and then you have to measure it a second time.”

Osborn doesn’t miss many measurements, but when he’s out of town, his wife or his neighbors are his back-up. Even though there’s still an official book, Osborn’s weather data is now transmitted electronically to the National Weather Service office in North Platte.

“It has become so engrained in me, that it’s just like getting out of bed,” Osborn said. “It’s something you do. I just do it.”

And he says he’ll continue to do it as long as he can. It’s part of keeping Ainsworth on the map.

“I find it fascinating in many ways, recording this and also I’m glad to know that I’m helping history, because this is the history of this area,” he said.

Osborn’s weather observations and the numbers from weather observers across Nebraska are recorded in a database that’s part of the national Centers for Environmental Information.

Editor's Note: In the original version of this story, David Pearson was mistakenly identified as Steve Pearson. We apologize for the error.