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Weather Almanac for June 2009
WEATHER DIARIES AND JOURNALS
In a recent discussion with friends, the topic of diaries/journals came up, and I confessed that I had trouble keeping such a record on a daily basis. I have never really tried to keep a personal journal (except for a business phone log when I worked for someone else) but I did try my hand at a daily weather journal for about 18 months while living in Victoria, BC. It was through that journal that I realized how repetitious the weather in the Capitol Region was. It took all my writing skills to describe the dominant totally sunny skies of summer and the unending dull greys of winter rainy season. Often I would enter: “Same as yesterday.”
Weather diaries/journals, either as stand-alone volumes or as additions to personal diaries/journals, however, have been a great asset to me, particularly when writing about weather history. They have also been an important information source for the meteorologist/climatologist looking for indications of past conditions in the days prior to the regular tallying of weather data that began in earnest in the mid-nineteenth century in American and Europe.
American Founding Fathers Benjamin Franklin, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson all kept weather diaries. Jefferson noted in his diary that on the day the Declaration of Independence was signed that he had bought his first thermometer on his way to the signing,. Jefferson kept a weather diary from that momentous year 1776 to his death half a century later. Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort kept a weather diary, devising his windscale and weather notation along the way and urged other ship captains to make regular weather observations a part of their daily logbook. So too did Robert FitzRoy, father of the British Weather Office and captain of the Beagle on which Charles Darwin, who also included weather information in his journals, sailed. The great English diarists of the seventeenth century John Evelyn, Ralph Josselin and Samuel Pepys, all penned notes on the weather in their journals.
I personally have found interesting weather descriptions in the daily writings of famed-Canadian painter Emily Carr, who also noted Victoria’s weather conditions, and the journals of Henry David Thoreau, who viewed weather from Walden Pond and other areas of Massachusetts and New England. The journals of two of my favorite nature writers Edwin Way Teale and Hal Borland have provided me with many interesting quotations on weather conditions. Perhaps the most famous quotation from a weather diary was penned by New Hampshire diarist Adino Brackett in his final entry for the infamous cold year of 1816 aka “the year there was no summer”:
"This past summer and fall have been so cold and miserable that I have from despair kept no account of the weather. It could have been nothing but a repeatation [sic] of frost and drought."
We know weather observations were recorded in official documents since earliest times in China, the Middle East and Europe, most done by now-anonymous chroniclers. The earliest known weather observations most often consisted of commentaries about unusual weather events or damaging storms. We have regular weather observation records from as early as the fifth century BCE collected by the Greeks.
Many of the earliest European weather records have often been discovered only by chance in documents that have survived for centuries in old monasteries or university libraries. Weather observations in diaries/journals appear to have blossomed around the end of the thirteenth century. The oldest weather diary according to A.F.V. van Engelen of the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute was written by Reverend Father William Merle at Driby in Lincolnshire, England covered the period 1337-1344.
van Engelen also cited a number of other early European weather diarists including: Clergyman David Fabricius (1564-1617) from East Friesland; Dutch barrister at fiscal law Anthonis Duyck from 1590-1602; Isaac Beeckman in the Netherlands at Zeeland (1612-1615) and at Dordrecht (1627-1637); and Fabio Chigi (1599-1667) papal nuncio at Cologne, Munster and Aachen and later Pope Alexander VII.
Johann Werner began collecting the earliest German weather observations, doing so from 1513 to 1520. Astronomer Tycho Brahe compiled weather observations in Denmark (1582 to 1597). Astronomer and mathematician Johann Kepler (1571-1630) noted the weather most of his life and kept extensive records while in Prague (from 1604) and Sagan (from 1628). Rene Descartes took the first set of barometric readings in Stockholm between 1649 and 1651 to see if atmospheric pressure could be used in forecasting the weather.
With the advent of the barometer and thermometer, more technical weather observations could be taken, though these instruments were not widely available to most diarists. In 1663, Robert Hooke was the first to propose standardization in weather record keeping in a paper entitled “Method for Making a History of the Weather” which included observations of wind, humidity, temperature, pressure and state of the sky.
Notation Scheme of Robert Hooke (1663)
Weather observations in Switzerland were taken at the powerful Einsiedeln Monastery from 1671 to 1704 by Brother Josef Dietrich who wrote in 1684: “Jan. 11 was so frightfully cold that all of the communion wine froze. Since I've been an ordained priest, the sacrament has never frozen in the chalice. But on Jan. 13 it got even worse and one could say it has never been so cold in human memory.”
Many of the weather diaries/journals compiled before 1800 were kept by people in three groups: farmers, mariners and scientists. The latter kept records that might contain more specific instrument readings of temperature and barometric pressure in addition to visual observation. Similarly with ship’s captains who also included wind observations. Farmer’s journals tended to be more subjective observations with perhaps some temperature readings, information that would help them with their crops. Many farmers’ observations were based on phenology, the study of the seasonal timing of natural events which often had strong correlations with accumulated weather conditions.
Weather Diaries in North America
Commentaries on the weather in the exploration logs of those who opened the North American continent date back to around Columbus’ time. When Jacques Cartier’s second expedition wintered in what is now Quebec City in 1535-36, they noted that the weather was severe and that “all our beverages froze in their casks. And on board our ships, below hatches as on deck, lay four finger’s breadth of ice.”
In the 1604-05 expedition of Pierre du Guast, they overwintered on St Croix Island in the estuary of the St Croix River, the current border between New Brunswick and Maine. The geographer Samuel de Champlain’s journal contained words of astonishment as to the severity of the winter (they had expected weather more like France), noting that all beverages except Spanish wine froze, and cider was distributed by the pound. “The cold was severe and more extreme than in France, and lasted much longer.”
We also have a weather account of the conditions around the mouth of the Hudson River during Henry Hudson's third voyage of discovery in 1609. The first mate on his ship Half Moon Robert Juet chronicled the weather along the Atlantic Coast and into the Hudson River for several months. A full account of Juet and his weather commentary can be found elsewhere on this site.
With the founding of Plymouth Plantation in 1620, we can find weather commentaries in the journals of William Bradford, who would be the historian of the colony and its governor, and Edward Winslow. The Journals of the Plantation contains such observations as: “Wednesday 17th [March 1621]: The wind was full east, cold but fair.” A few decades later, John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Company and a keen naturalist, would write extensively in his Journal A History of New England on weather-related matters during the period 1630-1649.
John Campanius (Holm), the Chaplain of the Swedish colonization force in what is now Wilmington, Delaware is credited with the first known compilation of weather records on the North American continent in the mid-1640s. In recognition of his pioneering work, the US National Atmospheric and Oceanic Agency grants the John Campanius Holm Award each year to honor cooperative weather observers for outstanding accomplishments in the field.
Many others also kept weather journals during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in North America including John Hull of Boston (1654-78); Samuel Sewall of Massachusetts (1670s-1730); John Pike of New Hampshire, one of the first native born chroniclers, (1682-1710); Joshua Hempstead of New London (1711-1758); Massachusetts Chief Justice Paul Dudley (1729-30). Professor John Winthrop of Harvard College (1742 to 1778) also noted weather conditions like his namesake of a century before. Dr. John Lining of Charleston, South Carolina (1737-1750) compiled observations of temperature, pressure, humidity and precipitation. His work was continued for nine more years by his associate Dr Lionel Chambers. Perhaps many other weather diaries/journals of equal completeness and length of record have been lost through the years or languish still, undiscovered in some dusty archive corner.
After talking with various ship captains American mathematician Isaac Greenwood realized that many ships maintained “Journals of Voyages” which contained valuable weather references. He found most contained daily observations of the general weather situation, more frequent notations of the wind character (direction and force) and latitude/longitude entries which located the weather condition on the globe. In 1728, Greenwood proposed the Royal Society collect as many such records as possible to determine weather and climate over the world’s oceans. Eventually these compilations were begun and continue to this day.
The Weather Journals of the Founding Fathers
I finish this by-no-means complete look at the history of weather journals with a few words about the American Founding Fathers. The name we think of first among the Founding Fathers in relation to science is Benjamin Franklin. He made weather observations for over sixty years and studied weather phenomena such as lightning, whirlwinds and the movement of storms, but he also kept a daily diary, recording the weather at sunrise, noon and sunset.
We usually don’t associate the name of George Washington with weather outside the images of his crossing the Delaware and the terrible winter at Valley Forge. We largely think of him as a general or as president, but he was also a Virginia plantation owner. Washington began keeping daily diaries of his life by 1748 and likely had journal entries with weather descriptions prior to his life as a farmer at Mount Vernon. His weather accounts of his travels westward in 1770 give us enough information to reconstruct some good weather scenarios. Indeed, his detailed accounts of a snowstorm which hit on 22 January 1772, and those of fellow Founding Father Thomas Jefferson have earned the storm the name: the “Washington and Jefferson Snowstorm”. Snowfall from that storm totaled nearly 3 feet across a swath of Virginia from Charlottesville to Winchester to Washington.
Washington began recording temperature in January 1785 and, for a period, took three readings daily: morning, noon, and sunset. Washington had few instruments for recording the weather. Aside from a thermometer, his only instrument was the weather vane atop his Mount Vernon home. References in his journals to humidity are subjective; and though referring to “falling weather” on occasion, he made no attempt to measure barometric pressure.
(Washington was proud of his prized weather vane in the shape of a dove of peace. It was made in Philadelphia by Joseph Rakestraw in the summer of 1787. The vane measures forty inches long, and the wing span from tip to tip is thirty-five inches. It has a copper body bound with iron strips; the bill with olive branch is fashioned from a piece of iron. This vane still survives and stands perched atop the cupola at Mount Vernon.)
Washington included weather observations in his diary until just prior to his death in December 1799. Many believe the last words he ever wrote (certainly the last entry in his diary) described the weather: “[December] 13. Snowing et al. 3 Inches deep. Wind at N.E. & Ther[mometer] at 30 continuing til 1 o’clock and then[?] it became perfectly clear...”
Washington’s fellow Virginian and member of his cabinet Thomas Jefferson was perhaps America’s most scientific president and included the study of weather and climate among his greatest interests. On 1 July 1776, he purchased his first thermometer and a week later his first barometer. From that time on, he kept records of their readings whenever possible and noted them in his Weather Memorandum Book, a practice he continued for fifty years. His extensive weather/phenology record was later used when he composed his Notes on the State of Virginia, which was a natural history of his state. In that volume, he summarizes the climate of Virginia based on five-years of observations at Williamsburg and vicinity.
As part of his interests in weather and climate, Jefferson encouraged others to undertake weather diaries. Jefferson corresponded with Rev James Madison, president of William and Mary College at Williamsburg, exchanging weather data with him. The two-year comparison of conditions at Monticello and those at Charlottesville ended when the war intervened, but the two-year meteorological record was the first intentionally simultaneous weather observations made in the US. Following the war, he obtained a thermometer and sent it to Isaac Zane who was in the Ohio Valley territory so that some knowledge of the climate west of the Appalachians could be determined.
Jefferson continued commenting on the weather in his presidential diary entries during his eight years in office. While president, he pushed for more weather/climate information to be obtained across the nation. When President Jefferson charged Meriweather Lewis and William Clark to explore the Northwest, one mandate given them was the keeping of detailed weather diaries, the first collection of weather data from west of the Mississippi River. Jefferson personally schooled Lewis in the taking of weather observations.
At Monticello, Jefferson had a thermometer, barometer, rain gauge, and wind vane and would measure snowfall depth as well. Following his retirement from the presidency in 1809, Jefferson continued his observations twice daily until six days before his death on 4 July 1926.
The first step toward Jefferson’s vision of a national observation network climate survey came in 1815 during the War of 1812 when Dr James Tipton, Surgeon General of the Army issued a directive to all Army hospital surgeons to keep “a diary of the weather.”. Three years later, the new Surgeon General Dr Joseph Lovell put Tipton’s initiative into widespread operation. As a result, the first weather publication issued by the Medical Department of the Army came out in 1826.
During the first half of the nineteenth century, weather diarists continued to flourish and there was a great push for uniform weather observations across the nation beginning about 1830. In 1831 James Pollard Espy called on meteorological diarists to adopt a common plan and invited them to publish their records. Cooperative programs of weather observations organized by the Franklin Institute, the American Philosophical Society and finally merged with a program under the Smithsonian Institute changed the nature of weather diaries from personal collections to a systematic national observation network. Though more weather observations were now being taken by “professionals”, the role of the “amateur” continued strong, and soon an army of cooperative weather observers covered the nation. Eventually, the US climate data program brought the keeping of weather records under the auspices of the federal government.
For many weather events, the notes of local diarists have become indispensable in reconstructing major weather events. Some of the more notable were the diaries of farmers Adino Brackett of New Hampshire, Benjamin Harwood of Bennington, Vermont and Joshua Whitman at North Turner, Maine which provided valuable insights into the weather conditions and sequences of the abnormal cold summer of 1816.
The Continuing Words
The practice of compiling weather diaries did not end with the establishment of government cooperative programs and standardized forms. In fact, the computer and electronics revolution of the past few decades has given almost everyone the opportunity to collect weather data and distribute them globally. Many of these volunteer observers work outside the established cooperative programs but often supply data to local government or media networks, or businesses, particularly those involved with local tourism or recreational facilities.
What the computer and home weather network have given us in terms of gathering weather information is, however, just numbers. What I personally prefer to see in weather diaries is more than just numbers, it is the personal observations of the state of the sky. The diaries of Thoreau and Emily Carr are two examples of the best in weather diaries. They convey a poetic aspect at times in their descriptive entry and comments on how the weather affected them or the flora and fauna around them.
I doubt if I will ever compile a weather diary again; time seems to move too quickly and days are already full enough for me (hey, retirement is not always a easier life). But I hope many of you do if only for a brief time. It is a good way to train your weather eyes.
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