Opheim Farmer Maintains Families 89-Year Weather Observations
June 12, 2019
It will be 90 years in February since H. O. Dohlen began collecting weather data at a station in Opheim. As the superintendent of schools in the frontier town he would measure precipitation, temperature and sometimes even snow depth, record his findings and then send that data to the National Weather Service via mail to be added to the national records. That routine would continue until 1943 when he moved that station to his farm southeast of Opheim and carried on with his observations.
Eventually, he would pass his civic duty to his son, Erling Dohlen, in 1958 and he too would maintain the collection of data for over half a century until his death in 2009. The responsibility of carrying the family torch was then left to Harold Dohlen, his son. The latest Dohlen has maintained that family tradition of service each and every day since. In recognition of that dedication he was recently recognized for his 10 years of service to the cooperative by the National Weather Service in Glasgow.
For Harold Dohlen that legacy matters. "Well, for us, we love to keep the information and the history," said the younger Dohlen. "The information I get is just as important to me as it is to them [NWS]." He described how he got used to checking the gauges, thermometers and making the notations in a daily and monthly log with his father growing up. That habit was easy to keep going when he took over. He described the collection of data like a diary to keep track of the weather and "what you did that day."
"I can't believe, myself, that 10 years has gone by already," said Dohlen when recollecting the time he, his father and grandfather have put into the cooperative. "I guess I was used to it growing up with my dad."
"He takes an observation everyday," explained the Observer Program Coordinator for the NWS in Glasgow Brian Burleson. "I don't think he's ever missed one in the 10 years he's been doing it."
Still, Harold Dohlen has some time to go until he matches up with his late father. Erling Dohlen was awarded the Thomas Jefferson Award – the highest award presented to civilian weather cooperative observers by the NWS. He consistently maintained the observations and records for 51 years. Since the Dohlen family started their participation in the program, they have recorded high temperatures of 105 degrees Fahrenheit in June of '88 and Aug. of '83, a low of negative 49 degrees F. in Jan. '54, a total high daily precipitation of 3.41 inches in Sept. of '78 and a total daily snowfall of 10 inches in both December of 2008 and May (that's right, May) of 1979.
As the Thomas Jefferson Award's name may suggest, the cooperative observer program has been around for some time. In fact, the program takes its roots from the founding father Thomas Jefferson himself who kept daily weather measurements from the late 1700s and early 1800s for research and climate understanding. Over the years other citizens, scientists and government men would take up the task of keeping records on weather data, allowing the NWS to look back at centuries of recorded weather history. Some measurements in North America date to the seventeenth century when John Campanius Holms took measurements without the benefit of modern instrumentation.
In 1890, the current iteration of the cooperative was established with the law setting up the U.S. Weather Bureau and has been maintained by the NWS ever since. Civilians put stations near their homes or businesses and then record the data – sometimes once and sometimes twice a day. Near Glasgow that data is then sent to Burleson who records it, checks it for anomalies and then quality controls it before entering it into a database. It is this system that allows the NWS to recall record lows, highs and precipitation for the public.
"I think it's very important," said Burleson. "It's the basis for understanding the climate of the country." He continued by explaining that the various cooperatives allow the NWS to cover a more complete area of the country thus giving them the partial ability to better understand the historic data, analyze it and assess how the data demonstrates changing weather and climate patterns nationwide.
Dohlen shares that view, citing the number of calls his family has recieved since starting the cooperative from researchers to government workers with the Farm Services Agancy trying to verify and rule on drought conditions in the region.
The information provided by the observers is also used to verify the accuracy of warnings and watches. As the meteorologists predict weather events, it is up to observers and spotters on the ground to collect data, either verifying or negating certain predictions. That can then be used to improve NWS warnings in the future.
Currently, the NWS is looking for observers near Jordan, Mont., but they also have a gap between Opheim and Scobey. Otherwise, the service only installs and looks for volunteers in areas not already covered by observers. To inquire about volunteering, contact Burleson at the NWS in Glasgow 406-228-4042.