An eye on weather for 40 yearsMontpelier, N.D. - Donald Olson inherited a handmade weather vane from a relative who was a blacksmith. Olson, a retired farmer, gets a lot of use from that old weather vane, which resembles a white rocket and is mounted on the roof of his garage.
By: Patrick Springer, INFORUM
Montpelier, N.D. - Donald Olson inherited a handmade weather vane from a relative who was a blacksmith.
Olson, a retired farmer, gets a lot of use from that old weather vane, which resembles a white rocket and is mounted on the roof of his garage.
“It’s nothing fancy,” Olson says, “but it works pretty good.”
That vintage weather vane has seen decades of gusty service monitoring the whims of the wind.
But Olson inherited something else from Rolf Hanson, who was his father’s cousin as well as a neighbor who lived across the street for many years.
After Hanson died in 1971, Olson took over as a volunteer observer for the National Weather Service. Hanson had been an observer since 1941.
“It’s kind of been in the family all these years,” Olson says. His father’s blacksmith cousin was drafted by a weather service meteorologist based in Fargo, thus launching a family tradition that now spans more than 70 years.
As an observer, whose job largely involves reporting and logging precipitation totals, Olson is part of a vast network of volunteers who track Mother Nature as she ebbs and flows over the landscape.
He is one of 11,000, to be more precise. And to be still more precise, one of the most diligent.
“He’ll call at 2 o’clock in the morning and tell them a storm is coming through,” daughter Karen Olson of West Fargo says. “I think he enjoys it. I remember going outside with him and walking the fields to see what would happen.”
For his years of service, the National Weather Service recently recognized Olson’s efforts with its Thomas Jefferson Award, the highest honor given its army of cooperative observers.
It marked the second time the weather service saw fit to recognize Olson’s contributions to meteorological science.
Five years ago he received the John Campanius Holm Award, named after the first known systematic keeper of weather records in North America, whose observations date back to the 1640s.
So Olson, age 74, has devoted four decades to a grand tradition of weather watching that stretches back almost four centuries.
He maintains the precipitation gauge, with a readout that is punched into a tape, registering amounts at 15-minute intervals around the clock.
“Occasionally they give you some trouble and you’ve got to ding around with it,” he says. Thomas Jefferson, the scientist farmer, no doubt would approve.
Olson goes out to check his calibrated rain gauge every morning, and reports any results by touchtone telephone to the National Weather Service in Bismarck.
“I could do it on the computer,” Olson says. “It’s actually quicker to do it on the phone.”
His daily reports take only 10 or 15 seconds. A few years back, during an open house at the weather service in Bismarck, Olson got to meet the recipient of those daily calls.
“The person I talk to is a bunch of plastic – just a computer,” Olson says. “It looks like a big radio.”
His observations are fed into the forecasts that are followed avidly by consumers and grain markets.
“The weather bureau tells me everything we report every day goes worldwide,” he says. Weather reports, in fact, are an important ingredient in the crop futures markets he listens to every day on the radio.
“They want to know what’s going on out here,” Olson says.
His wife, Marie, lends a helping hand. She prepares the monthly weather summaries that Olson sends to Bismarck.
“I don’t do much,” Marie Olson says. “I just fill out the form.”
After more than four decades, the routines are well-ingrained in the Olsons’ rituals of daily life.
“We’d miss it a lot if we weren’t doing it,” Donald Olson says. “We don’t go south for the winter,” Marie Olson adds. “We have too many grandkids around here.”
And so much weather to keep an eye on.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522