My encounters with weather observing took off at age 17 in Pennsylvania at The Willogrove Naval Airbase then The Philadelphia International Airport where I would shadow weather observers and learn how routine weather reporting supports the coordination of safely clearing airplanes for departure and arrival. Isn’t the need for routine weather reporting just as critical in safely guiding ships at sea from port to port?
Ten years later with Ocean Research Project I begin to thoroughly explore this public service. Its Day 17 of our Sargasso Gyre Expedition, the alarms chimes 0145 as it is time to prepare the 0600 UTC or Greenich Meantime Weather Observation report. I had just finally started to get some real rest after finding a sleeping position with minimal rolling that required the least amount of bracing. I will admit that self-discipline and routine can become distant relatives to me often in these situations but when commitment and survival are on the line than a weather observation every 6 hours will be met.
Every observation counts, for every 100 observations on land there is 1 at sea. R/V Ault is an official mobile observation weather station within NOAA’s National Weather Service, Vessel Observing Ship Program. We are tasked to transmit 4 observations daily and are just 1 of 1000’s of land and sea based weather observation stations that contribute to big picture snapshots of the world’s weather. Besides ships and aircraft there are weather balloons released twice a day, upper air stations that reach past the troposphere, where most surface weather occurs, to obtain data to project weather past observation to prediction. Can you imagine 1000’s of balloons around the world being released twice every day sounding the skies? All of these observation sources combined are the foundation for weather warnings, forecasts and even climate change prediction research.
What came first the observation or the forecast? Matt and I often work as a team to record the elements needed by weather forecasters. We use simple traditional meteorological equipment that remind me of my childhood weather kit that consisted of a wind vane, thermometer and rain gauge. However, we are not monitoring the amount of rain at sea but are giving a detailed account of the state of the sea and sky and what precipitation may have occurred in between reports or at present. Matt is a true gentleman and will often volunteer to step out of the pilothouse to read me the wet, dry bulb thermometer and submerge then read the sea surface thermometer especially on those extra bumpy wet nights while I type the ship navigation statistics into our report encoding software. Cloud coverage and type, wind speed and direction and wave characteristics such as direction and height are some of the elements covered in the report. Our aneroid barometer is watched closely and as the atmospheric pressure rises and falls its tendency and value are critical components to record in any observation as the pressure changing can indicate front movement, alarming us of the weather to come.
Once Ocean Research Project completes this expedition we will have contributed over 200 weather observation transmissions, as we recognize this as our duty as mariners at sea. You can find our vessel reincarnated as an observation station plot on Ocean Prediction Center’s daily Atlantic Surface Analysis Charts represented as a wind barb which shows the wind direction and speed we experienced at the report time. Just take a peek at where we are at on our tracker around that time. Hopefully we are reporting less than 20 knots on the quarter in a favorable direction and cruising along.
Naturally, weather observations will always be a task onboard an Ocean Research Project vessel as we recognize the need for observations in the areas we may study that have few observation sources, where few ships go to. The ocean is 75% of the planet’s surface after all therefore, there is a lot of ground to cover and it is important to obtain weather observations from the remote and extraordinary environments. An expedition to the Arctic in 2014 is in development where more observations may be of value to the scientific community. We invite a weather observation system onboard for test and evaluation that can record the reporting elements real-time and more frequently. If it were not for the US Navy’s Matthew Fontaine Maury of 1853 it may have taken some years later to determine the value of a combination of ship weather reports and we are proud to participate in the legacy program made from that discovery.