‘Dear Diary’

2 years ago

Editor’s note: This is a reprint of one of Ted Shapiro’s original Weather Whys columns.

Most folks don’t know that some very important weather information has been gleaned from old weather diaries, which were often kept by farmers and town folk alike.

It is through these diaries, for instance, that we know of a tremendous snowstorm on Jan. 28, 1772, which buried George Washington’s Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in 3 feet of snow. They each recorded it in their diaries!

In fact, a colleague of mine was able to use a combination of modern records and old diaries to say, with confidence, that during the height of D.C.’s snow blitz of 2009-10, the snow which lay across the northern Virginia countryside was deeper than at any time since the Revolutionary War.

Now, as a Weather Ready Nation Ambassador, I have worked with parents and their school-age children to help them get started with keeping observations of their own. It is a great thing to do together and will hopefully “reintroduce” the simple pleasures of observation (as opposed to relying on, say, “apps” on smart phones). Plus, it is something your child will remember forever, doing weather observations with you, as I remember talking nature walks with my mother when I was a child.

But you don’t even need me because it is so easy to just start on your own! First, get yourself a basic U-shaped max/min thermometer. How? Google on “basic U-shaped max/min thermometer” and you’ll find tons of links. You don’t want anything digital, since the whole point is to observe in your surroundings, not from the comfort of your living room. These cost about $20 or so, and they are really cool because they leave a record of what the high and low were since you last checked it! That and a good field guide to clouds will get you started very nicely (I happen to like the “Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Weather”).

So, keeping a weather diary, it’s really simple (and fun). What you are trying to do is to convey the character of the day. And you do that by adding some nice extras. For instance, if it is the first day, coming out of winter, that you notice that it is warm inside the car when you first open the door, that is a great example of a good thing to write down to convey the character of the day. Here’s another: “For the first time this fall I’ve had to wear a jacket.” Or “The grass is really starting to green up.” Or “The trees are just starting to leaf out.” Or “The late February sun is becoming noticeably stronger. Had to remove layers while skiing.” Again, these types of extras help to paint a picture of the character of the day, what the day actually felt like or looked like, as opposed to only writing down the high and low temperature and how much rain fell.

The list of “extras” to add is endless and, remember, some very famous people have kept weather diaries. But famous or not, all weather diaries can contain hidden gems (like the Washington-Jefferson storm of 1772) for future researchers who are fortunate enough to come in to their possession.

Meteorologist Ted Shapiro wrote his column “Weather Whys” during the 15 years he was a Presque Isle resident. Although he now lives in southwest Florida, he thought his loyal readers might enjoy a few encore presentations, which will appear in these pages from time to time.