NCDC needs to incorporate information into their metadata database from four sources that they currently ignore and/or keep from the public.
Guest essay by John Slayton
Southern California’s San Gabriel Mountains have long been a natural habitat for scientists. Some of their activities are well known–the observatory on Mt. Wilson and Michelson’s measurement of the speed of light come readily to mind. But there are others. One was the touristy Thaddeus Lowe, who built an electric railway into the mountains to an observatory at Echo Peak, near another peak which now bears his name, Mt. Lowe. Mr. Lowe’s enterprise soon changed hands, but years later, from 1926 to 1936, there was a COOP weather station on Mt. Lowe.
I hike around there from time to time, and I got curious a while back about the exact location of that station. So I consulted NOAA’S MMS site to get a satellite view of the terrain. But the terrain that came up was very strange. Turned out that the coordinates given were, as I remember, about a hundred miles to the east, in the direction of Twenty-Nine Palms. I e-mailed NOAA, and they promptly corrected the error. We residents of Los Angeles County are happy to have our mountain back. And NOAA thereby demonstrated a willingness to listen to laymen and correct mistakes.
Alas, the MMS site is no more. It has been replaced by HOMR, the ‘Historical Observing Metadata Repository.’ HOMR mostly contains the same data as the earlier MMS site, but there is at least one significant improvement. In the earlier site, all the reported locations were treated as fictional points on the map. Fictional, because all measured coordinates are in fact approximations. In the pre-GPS days the approximation could be pretty rough and records typically recorded low precision measurement. The new HOMR site addresses this by dividing recorded locations into two groups: ‘precise’ and ‘imprecise.’
Stehekin, Washington, provides a good example of how this works. This is a fascinating vacation community at the north end of Lake Chelan. You can’t drive there, but there are three ways to get into the area. You can take a boat up from the south end of the lake; you can fly in on a pontooned plane; or you can use the equestrian/hiking trail. (John Hultquist could probably give good advice about this….) I chose to walk.
Stehekin has had a weather station since 1906. It was located for many years at the Buckner Homestead, a site that has been turned over to the federal Park Service and is now maintained by the Buckner Homestead Heritage Foundation. You can look Stehekin up on HOMR at: http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/homr/#ncdcstnid=20027918tab=MSHR
Use the location tab and you will find 4 locations considered to have ‘high precision’ measurements. The Buckner Homestead is not among them.
Under the map is a button to click to view the ‘low precision’ locations. Clicking that will bring up three more locations. Buckner Homestead is number 7. It is represented by a rectangle approximately 1 by 2 kilometers, containing roads, open land, forested land, buildings, and a major river. The station was somewhere inside that rectangle. Not near as precise as we would like, but a very honest presentation by NOAA of the precision of their records.
We would like better precision, of course, so I went back to visit the site and look for some remnant of the station. (Took the boat, this time.) Looked all over, found nothing. Ran into a fellow out there doing some work around the old house, who turned out to be Herb Sargo. Mr. Sargo is the grandson of long time observer Harry Buckner, and the great-grandson of M.E. Field, the observer from 1906 to 1908. He is also the president of the Buckner Homestead Heritage Foundation. I don’t know where you’d find a better authority, and he was able to point out the location of the station “…within probably four feet in any given direction, as verified by numerous family photos.”
I have shared this information with the Spokane weather service office and they have been kind enough to reply. They note that our information is not entirely consistent with their rendition #1 drawn map. I am not surprised; over a period of 50+ years things get moved
around. But I am perplexed by their policy on the metadata database:
As you know, the latitude/longitude precision goes only to DDMM on these historical forms. This is what would be represented in the station history database. A location provided to greater precision than possible with equipment during that time could garner a remark in the station’s record, but would not be fully reflected in the database.
I can only read this to mean that their database is not about the station itself, but only about the station’s official records. Certainly those records would be the first place to look if I wanted to know about station metadata, but the database should be more than a compilation of old federal forms.
NOAA should fully integrate information from other sources, including the following:
1. Reliable Observers with Personal and First-hand Knowledge
Stehekin Buckner Homestead certainly meets this test, as do many others. In some cases one feels almost a sense of urgency, as many potential informants are retiring. (Example: The gentleman who pinpointed the Buckeye city yards location for me remarked that he was probably the only person left there who could do that.) Sadly, some are getting up in years and will not be with us much longer.
2. Historical Photographs
San Luis Obispo’s COOP station has a record going back to 1885. Observations were made from 11 known locations, and historical photographs show instrumentation from 7 of these. We have photos from (approximately) 1885, 1894, 1910, 1929, 1930, 1937, 1938, 1970, and the current location. (Serendipitously, for several years the station was close to the university gymnasium. The CRS shows up in the background of athletic team photos published in the school yearbook.) All of these locations can be pretty much pinpointed and placed in HOMR’s “precise” category. And should be.
3. Semi-archeological Evidence
As stations are moved, some things get left behind. The result is a physical trail testifying to station history. For example I took a swing around Texas and neighboring states earlier this year. At 5 sites I was able to pinpoint former locations because part or all of the MMTS posts had been left when the thermometer was removed. (That would be Eureka Springs, Clarksville, Mexia, Alpine, Poteau.) In one site (Alpine radio station) the concrete base of the old CRS remained. And in two sites entire instruments were left behind (MMTS in Flatonia, CRS in Hooker).
So we know from the physical remains exactly where these stations were located. Yet in at least four of these sites the former locations are treated by HOMR as “imprecise.”
4. Yer Lyin’ Eyes.
The station in Falfurrias, Texas, was for some period of time located at the local airport. It was then moved, according to HOMR, “ 4.7 MI W“. Trouble is, the new reported coordinates (and the location shown on the maps) moved it south, not west. On my first visit to Falfurrias I was not able to even access the reported site, as it was way out in a large acreage that appeared to be fenced and gated on every side.
The Brownsville Weather Service office was very helpful, however, and two of their men drove all the way up to Falfurrias to give me access to the current site, which is located in a hunting lodge several miles from the reported coordinates. True coordinates for the thermometer are 27.2326, -98.20040.
If you’ve read this far, I would recommend you Google these coordinates, because the satellite photo resolution is a bit extraordinary. You can see, not only the top of the MMTS, but also a cast shadow that clearly shows both the thermometer and the post it sits on.
(Of course you could also look at our ground photos in the surfacestations gallery.)
When I contacted NOAA to try to get the location corrected, this is the answer I received:
The latitude and longitude provided in HOMR come directly from the National Weather Service B-44 rendition… The most current rendition for Falfurrias TX was effective 5/15/2013 and the coordinates on that rendition are 27.1354, -98.1202. I cannot make changes to the coordinates without a new rendition from NWS….”
Which brings me back to the title of this post….
NOTE: John Slayton is one of the most prolific and thorough volunteers with the surfacestations project. His work has helped us solve many mysteries on station siting. For novice readers, B-44 refers to the “B-44 form” used by NOAA to catalog the details around stations, such as this one from Santa Cruz, CA. Unfortunately, B-44 forms are considered “off limits” to the public by NCDC, for “privacy reasons” even though we can now look down directly into the back yards of COOP observers with advanced tools like Google Earth. I had once asked NCDC for access to the B-44 forms, and was denied. Maybe with instant look down capabilities in the hands of the public using the lat/lon coordinates provided by HOMR, the time has come to drop such silly policies to put the B44 forms online for research purposes. – Anthony