Scientists debate weather recording

Thursday, February 21st 2008, 7:30 pm
By: News 9

By Rusty Surette, NEWS 9

John Lewis works 365 days a year for the National Weather Service and isn't paid a penny for it.

Everyday the Logan County resident, and thousands of volunteers like him, walk out to what's called a surface station and document the high and low temperatures and how much precipitation has fallen.

The data is sent back to the National Weather Service for official record-keeping. Critics of the Cooperative Observer Program, or the Co-Op Network, said it's time to upgrade the system.

"It's not a very sophisticated job to learn," Lewis said.

The can that collects the rain is so old it still bears the United States Weather Bureau identification. Lewis said the snow detector is just as high-tech.

"It's simply a board we use to measure how much snow has fallen," he said.

Dr. Roger Pielke, Sr. of the University of Colorado said he thinks Americans aren't getting the real numbers from these sites because of their placement.

"In terms of the sites we've looked at, they are too close to buildings, near asphalt, near sidewalks," Pielke said.

Dr. Jim O' Sullivan and his colleagues at the National Climatic Data Center defend the use of the Co-Op Network. They said there may be some flaws, but the system has worked well for more than a century.

"You're talking about stations that have had long term historical, valid records of temperature, precipitation and other factors," he said. "Just to uproot something and move it does cause concern within the climate community."

One recommendation is to move to a more high-tech system like the Mesonet network used in Oklahoma, but members of the National Climatic Data Center said it would cost too much money.

The University of Oklahoma's Mark Shafer agrees it may not be worth the investment.

"There is essentially no difference in the temperature readings from the co-op network versus the Oklahoma Mesonet," he said. "It might be tempting to say ‘Let's just scrap the whole co-op network and start over with a Mesonet like Oklahoma's,' but that's  a little bit like saying ‘I just got a digital camera, I'm going to throw away all my old family albums.'"

Dr. Pielke said it boils down to accurate weather data for farmers, scientists and researchers. The system even has political implications.

"What is has led to is a misleading of the policy makers about how much warming really has occurred across the U.S.," Pielke said. "Clearly I think deep down they recognize this is a serious problem, but they are not dealing with it in the appropriate way."

While scientists debate how to record the temperature, John Lewis said he's going to keep checking his station each morning.

"I like getting outside," he said. "I enjoy my relationship with the Weather Service and I enjoy my relationship with mother nature."