Groundhog gets the glory, but forecasters had a holiday, too

Special to The TribuneFebruary 8, 2013 

We had two weather-related holidays last week, one famous and one obscure.

The well-known holiday is when a hairy weather prophet, Punxsutawney Phil, emerges from his hole to predict how much longer winter will last. Groundhog Day is celebrated on the festival of lights, which marks the halfway point between winter solstice and the spring equinox. According to legend, if this husky rodent sees his shadow, winter will last six more weeks. If he doesn't see his shadow, spring will come early. Unfortunately, like flipping a coin or spinning a roulette wheel, Phil is only accurate about half the time in foretelling the end of winter's chill. The hog has celebrated this holiday since 1886 in Gobbler's Knob in west-central Pennsylvania.

But did you know there is a second weather-related holiday that recognizes the men and women who collectively provide atmospheric observations, weather and climate forecasts? February 5 was National Weatherpersons Day. It commemorates the 1745 birth of John Jeffries, who was one of America’s first weather observers. Jeffries lived in Boston, where he graduated from Harvard and later started a medical practice. Unlike Ben Franklin, whom I considered to be our country's first meteorologist, Jeffries was loyal to the crown and was a military surgeon with the British Army during the American Revolution. He later moved his family to England in 1776.

Like Franklin, Jeffries had an intense curiosity about the world around him and became fascinated with balloon flight and the meteorological observations they could make. He partnered with Jean-Pierre Blanchard, a French pioneer in ballooning. While testing balloons in London, Jeffries took the first-ever measurements of temperature, pressure and humidity from a balloon. During his flight over London, he dropped greeting cards to friends below to measure winds at different altitudes. Later he would accompany Blanchard on the first balloon flight across the English Channel to France in 1785.

In 1790 he and his family returned to his medical practice in Boston where he delivered more than 1,000 babies until his death in 1819. He was a keen meteorologist who kept detailed atmospheric observations. His records are kept in the library of the Blue Hill Meteorological Observatory in Boston.

Today, weather balloons transmit critical weather information. The radiosonde on today's balloons broadcasts readings on temperature, pressure and humidity, as well as global positioning system coordinates for the upper-level winds. This data can determine the instability of the atmosphere and the intensity of storms, and it can define the height of the temperature inversion layer when forecasting coastal low clouds and fog.

On April 20, students can participate in the Endeavour Institute STEM Education (science, technology, engineering and math) Balloon Fest at Tobin James Cellars east of Paso Robles. Participants released tethered balloons with payloads of science experiments. The idea of this program came from Steve Kliewer, Endeavour Institute director and master teacher.

For more information, visit http://endeavourinstitute.org.

Scholarships offered

PG&E is accepting applications from students to receive PG&E Bright Minds scholarships, as well as scholarships from the utility’s Employee Resource Groups (ERGs).

Through its Bright Minds Scholarship program, PG&E will award up to $1 million to enable high school, community college and “non-traditional” students to complete their higher education goals. Bright Minds scholarship winners will receive scholarships of up to $30,000 per year; program finalists will receive $2,500 towards their studies. In addition PG&E ERGs are also accepting applications for a wide variety of scholarships. To learn more, visit www.pge.com.

John Lindsey’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a media relations representative for PG&E and a longtime local meteorologist. If you have a question, send him an email at pgeweather@pge.com.

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