Rain or shine, subzero cold or triple-digit heat, Steve Reckers of New Hope braves the elements nightly to record his observations about the weather.
Reckers ventures outside with a flashlight to the “cotton region shelter” in his back yard. The boxlike structure houses various instruments for taking readings.
Unless it’s 20 below or pouring rain, he doesn’t bother with a coat or gloves. “I’m not out there for very long,” he said.
As a “cooperative weather observer” for the National Weather Service, Reckers has conducted this daily ritual for nearly half a century. The retired state planner sends his detailed observations to the agency, and they get archived with the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C., and the State Climatology Office in St. Paul.
Recently, the Weather Service honored Reckers with the Dick Hagemeyer Award for his 45 years of service. The award is named for a former Weather Service official whose 51-year career was marked by notable achievements. Hagemeyer died in 2001.
Michelle Margraff, who oversees the observer program for the National Weather Service Twin Cities, calls Reckers “the gold standard for weather observers.”
“He spends his time getting the absolute best measurements,” she said. “You can tell he has a love for watching the weather,” she said.
The information that Reckers and other observers contribute is invaluable, she said. It helps with everything from predicting flooding to determining how deep to bury pipelines to avoid frost. The observations also shed light on climate change.
As such, Reckers is among the “unsung heroes of the climate record,” Margraff said.
Pete Boulay, a climatologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, adds that Reckers’ data, particularly the precipitation records he compiled from 1971 to 2000, is often used as a baseline for the Twin Cities. “It helps when we do some calculations, comparing rainfall,” he said.
Boulay readily refers others to Reckers’ data, as well. “He’s very good. We’ve had a good confidence in him over the years,” he said.
Reckers is modest about the award and the milestone it represents. “I’m glad they can use the information and that they appreciate the efforts people put into it,” he said, adding, “I’d be doing this anyway.”
‘Something I was born with’
Using a couple of old-fashioned, liquid-in-glass thermometers, Reckers ascertains the high and low temperatures for the day. He makes a note of numerous other factors, including precipitation, barometric pressure, sky conditions and wind direction and speed.
While most cooperative weather observers now use electronic equipment that can be read indoors, Reckers prefers to stick with his liquid-in-glass thermometers and the like for the sake of continuity, he said.
In the shelter, Reckers has some instruments set up “just for fun,” including a hydrometer and a psychrometer, which measure humidity and dew point. He also has wireless devices for intermediate readings throughout the day, he said.
As a child, Reckers was intrigued by what was going on outside. “It’s something I was born with. It’s inside,” he said.
Growing up, he was constantly checking out the temperature. One time, he got the idea to catch rain and snow in a coffee can. He measured the accumulation with a ruler.
Later, he got a rain gauge.
When he was in sixth grade, his parents gave him a Taylor indoor/outdoor thermometer, which he put up in his bedroom. He would note the temperature in the morning and again in the late afternoon, when he got home from school.
Reckers has hung onto the old Taylor thermometer, which has sentimental value. His early notes are stored in a folder, too. “My wife would consider it junk, much of it. Or maybe clutter is a better term. She puts up with the gauges that sit in the house,” he said.
Much has changed since Reckers first started watching the weather.
For example, he remembers being impressed by images of the cloud cover on a “facsimile machine,” as it was called at the time, in the late 1950s.
Also, he used to love going up and down the radio dial, listening to weather reports from surrounding communities. He never dreamed that one day all of that information would be “at your fingertips, on the computer, at any time.”
One thing that hasn’t changed: Weather enthusiasts appear to be a rare breed. None of Reckers’ three children or eight grandchildren seem interested in the hobby, he said.
But he gets a good dose of weather talk with fellow members of the American Weather Observers Akin Chapter, a somewhat informal group that came together in 1988. He’s looking forward to its next gathering in February.
So what does Reckers think about our so-far chilly January?
“It’s been quite cold. Whether it’ll turn out to be an extremely cold month is hard to say. Things can turn in a hurry,” he said.
“The first seven days of the month were the coldest we’ve had in one week since 1979. It’s not anything to get terribly excited about. We’ve had some terribly cold Januaries,” he said.
‘Very few dull moments’
It’s those kinds of events, or the extremes, that make the hobby even more exciting for him. “In Minnesota, there are very few dull moments of weather. It’s always changing,” he said.
In 1988, for instance, there were five 100-degree days, which is rare.
During the Halloween blizzard of 1991, he logged 22.9 inches of snow over four days. He also counted 51 inches of rain that year, he said.
Then there was Groundhog Day 1996. It was tough to go outside to take his reading, which was 33 below, a record low for him. “Normal people probably don’t think it’s exciting when it’s 30 below. My family thinks I’m off my rocker,” he said.
Despite the recent cold, in his years of observing “I can see some warming occurring,” he said. He’s unsure whether to attribute it to greenhouse gases or something cyclical. “We may be going into a warmer period or maybe the reverse. A lot of people think we’ll continue on this path of global warming,” he said.
People often ask Reckers if he ever gets bored with the weather. His answer? “It never wore off. I’m still fascinated.”
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.