BRIDGEWATER, Maine — Even after 37 years as a volunteer observing all kinds of weather in his area and gathering data for the National Weather Service’s office in Caribou, John Barker of Bridgewater still recalls the day about 15 years ago when the skies around his community suddenly turned black and threatening.
“It was really something,” Barker, a weather spotter for the NWS Cooperative Observer Program, recalled recently. “They called me from the Caribou office and asked what was happening in terms of weather down in Bridgewater. I had no more than said, ‘There’s nothing going on right now,’ and all of a sudden I looked outside and hail was just pounding down around the house from every angle and the trees were bent right sideways. It was the result of a downdraft near St. Croix Lake that brought a swath of hail and thunderstorms our way. It was just that quick.”
Barker said he does not recall it doing significant damage beyond some downed trees, but it was one of many storms he has experienced over the last nearly four decades since he took over serving in the Cooperative Observer Program from his father, Elliot Barker, who also volunteered in the program for a number of years.
There are more than 8,700 volunteers nationwide who take observations on farms, in urban and suburban areas, national parks, at seashores and on mountaintops for the NWS program that was created in 1890.
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There are 57 cooperative observer sites throughout Maine, according to Donald Dumont, warning coordinator meteorologist for the NWS Caribou office.
Volunteers provide observational meteorological data, usually consisting of daily maximum and minimum temperatures, snowfall and 24-hour precipitation totals, Dumont said. The data are necessary to illustrate the climate of the United States and to help measure long-term climate changes, he said. The data also are used daily to support forecast, warning and other public service programs of the NWS.
Barker — who said he’s “not a weather buff at all” — said he didn’t have a normal transition into the observer program.
“Once my father started to get sick and I started talking about the idea of taking over his position, he tried to talk me out of it,” Barker said, chuckling at the memory. “He told me, ‘You don’t need that headache. Get rid of that [weather spotting] equipment and be done with it.’ But I didn’t listen to him.”
In the past, he explained, the observer position in the community was customarily passed down from one individual to another, sometimes from one generation to another.
When he first started in the position, he noted, the information the Caribou office asked for on a daily basis was “a lot simpler.”
“They basically wanted to know about temperature and how much rain or snow we got that day,” he said. “Now, though, there are a lot more questions about [cloud] ceiling and barometric pressure that they didn’t used to ask, so my wife Robin and I really have to put our heads together and think about our day.”
Another difference when he started out 37 years ago, he said, was technology.
“Years ago I used to just call them on the phone and give them the information,” Barker said. “But then they eventually went all computerized, and I am not good at all with computers, so I gather all of the data and my wife enters them into the computer for me. She is a big help.”
Dumont said volunteers in the program have to be at least 16 years old to participate, but because ages aren’t kept on record, he did not know who the youngest and oldest active observers are. He did say one volunteer who works with the Gray NWS office out of southern Maine has been taking weather observations for 54 years.
“We train them on what the equipment is and how to use it,” Dumont explained of the volunteers. “How to measure the rain that falls in the rain gauge and measure snow and liquid water equivalent. Sometimes, we do have a hard time finding co-op volunteers for certain parts of the state or country, because we like to keep them spaced out. It also is hard to keep someone for as long as Mr. Barker has volunteered. It is our goal to have someone volunteer for at least 30 years, because that gives us the data to show how climate has changed over time. But many times, people will volunteer for five or six years and then something comes up or they move and they can’t do it anymore.”
Even though it is a position his father preferred he not have, Barker said he has “always enjoyed” his contributions to the weather service.
“They have recognized me several times for my service, which has been nice,” he said.
For more info on the NWS Cooperative Observer Program, contact Donny Dumont at 492-0180, ext. 223 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.