Ruler and a rain bucket: Weather Service honors 125-year record at UConn

By on April 15, 2014

The unassuming rain bucket where Steve Olsen continues 125 years of tradition by taking rainfall measurements by hand (Credit: Steve Olsen)

As Steve Olsen made his way to the records room in his office building, flicking on a light and keeping track of the concrete floor beneath his feet, he wondered why he was going so far to find a book.

Curiosity, he thought, was the obvious answer. But it was also a matter of tradition: He wanted to know how far back the record reached. When he finally sorted through the pile of dusty boxes, he pulled out what he was looking for.

“The writing was beautiful, almost like a script,” said Olsen, manager of the Plant Science Research and Education Facility at the University of Connecticut. “It was amazing how someone had taken the time to write nicely.”

As he perused the pages, the very first record was June 1, 1888. A big blizzard, he read, had made its way up the East Coast impacting New York and states nearby. That data marked the first recorded weather measurements at the facility, the start of what is now a record spanning 125 years. For its record-keeping, the National Weather Service has awarded UConn’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources with an Honored Institution Award.

In the late 1800s, the first weather data were collected there using a mercury thermometer and a large can. Observers recorded the metrics each day, marking notes down by hand. Olsen, who began working at UConn in 1988, still collects some measurements that way, though many are recorded by a Campbell Scientific data logger installed in 1992.

At the same time each day, he goes out to a station owned by the National Weather Service that is outfitted with a rain bucket and thermometer and records precipitation and temperature data for the previous 24-hour period. The bucket is about 8 inches in diameter, Olsen says, with a small funnel inside that allows him to measure rain to one-hundredth of an inch. He does this by hand.

“I like (recording) it manually better for the rainfall – what’s in the can is what fell,” said Olsen. “There’s nothing like going out there with a ruler and looking at it directly.”

Olsen (left) with the rain can and National Weather Service award (Credit: National Weather Service)

The automated station is more high-tech, recording data every 15 seconds on precipitation, temperature, wind speed and direction, photosynthetically active radiation and soil moisture.

These two stations are important to the NWS, making up part of its Cooperative Observer Program that has some 12,000 weather stations nationwide. In Connecticut, these number 110. “They’re homeowners mostly,” said Olsen. “It’s good data, but it’s splintered.”

With a span of 125 years, UConn’s data sets help inform future climatic predictions for the region. Olsen says they are also used in-house at the Plant Science Research and Education Facility.

“We do so many different things. I like to say we grow everything but animals,” said Olsen. The data are used in research projects and also help with managing the facility’s grounds. Sometimes data are shared with graduate students who need them for their studies, or if somebody just wants to know how much rain fell the night before.

“As a farm manager, I’m kind of an unscientific observer, but it’s a lot of fun to take these measurements,” said Olsen. “It’s when we get huge amounts of rain, like 2 inches of rain in one night or 7 inches in two days, that’s unbelievable. I think, ‘Wow, that was an amazing storm.’”

Top image: The unassuming rain bucket where Steve Olsen continues 125 years of tradition by taking rainfall measurements by hand (Credit: Steve Olsen)

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