Weather Service lauds Elfin Cove observers

Posted: Monday, September 26, 2005

There's that old adage about the weather in Southeast Alaska - if you don't like it, wait 15 minutes.

For 34-year Elfin Cove resident Mary Jo Lord-Wild, the punchline has extra significance. As a cooperative weather observer for the National Weather Service, and a contracted A-Paid aviation weather observer for planes passing through the Chichagof Island village, Lord-Wild has monitored and recorded the weather for the last 30 years. Her husband, Jim, has helped her for 25.

Lord-Wild leaves her house about a dozen times a day and climbs into a 2 1/2-foot square white weather service shelter to conduct her measurements. The never-ending workload does not phase her.

"I'm very good at commitment," Lord-Wild said.

But the responsibility also means that she and her husband rarely leave the tiny town at the same time. For years, longtime Elfin Cove resident Buck Smith, a trained weather observer, could spell the Wilds when they wanted to vacation. He died a few years ago.

"If you have an interest in the natural world, this is a great job," Lord-Wild said. "Thirty years, and I'm just as happy to get out and do it as the day I started."

At 10 a.m. Tuesday, at Juneau's National Weather Service Forecast Office, Lord-Wild will be presented with the service's John Campanius Holm Award for her service in the Cooperative Weather Observer Program. Jim Wild will also be recognized. The Holm award is the service's second-most-prestigious honor.

"If it weren't for them, we'd have no data in Elfin Cove," said National Weather Service meteorologist Kimberly Vaughan. "We have what we call spotters, and those people are out there and they're keeping an eye on things, any changes in the weather. She's very diligent about calling when there's any significant weather like that, and she's been doing it for 30 years."

"I'm excited to be among those people who have stepped out the door for years and years and years to see what the weather's doing," Lord-Wild said. "They used to send out a newsletter called "The Cooperative Observer" that was divided into sections of the country," Lord-Wild said. "Over the years I could see all the people getting the John Campanius Holm award, and it was always fun to see people standing there on the edge of their pasture with their little weather station."

John Campanius Holm recorded weather data in 1644 and 1645 - the earliest-known weather observations in the United States. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin recorded weather observations, according to the National Weather Service. The first network of cooperative observers was established in the 1890s, after the U.S. Congress created the U.S. Weather Bureau.

There are approximately 11,700 cooperative observers in the country. The national goal is to have one for every 20 square miles, Vaughan said. There are a handful in Juneau. Near Elfin Cove, there's a volunteer observer in Pelican and an automated- buoy in Cape Spencer that tracks temperature and wind conditions. Automated systems can't track visibility and fog conditions.

The A-Paid observer job is a contract position with the weather service that monitors information useful to boats and airplanes. There are 27 A-Paid locations in Alaska.

It's especially important to have actual observers in Elfin Cove, because of the town's location on the open ocean. The weather and wind can be unpredictable.

During the season, when fishermen are in town and lodges are open, the town will have several hundred people in it. In the winter, since the school closed, there are about 15.

In the summer, Lord-Wild has four other jobs. She's the bookkeeper for the community fuel dock, the guest speaker on small cruise ships that stop in town, the director and host of the local museum and an amateur postcard and photocard creator.

The Wilds live in Elfin Cove's back bay, off the main boardwalk system. The weather service shelter has an assortment of thermometers to measure temperature changes. Wind calculations are done mostly with altimeters. A rain can sits outside the house to gauge rainfall. And a snowboard is used to track total snowfall. The Wilds walk out on their pier to see out of the cove and judge visibility and the ceiling. Years ago, they would send in their readings through a single-band radio. These days it's done through a satellite modem.

Lord-Wild moved to the Brooks Range in the 1960s and spent more than a year there. She left to travel the state, visited a friend in Elfin Cove and decided to stay. She eventually met Jim, a commercial fisherman and oyster farmer. They raised three kids in Elfin Cove - a son, Omen; and two daughters, Marlie and Serena.

One of Lord-Wild's first jobs in Elfin Cove was serving as a winter caretaker for the old Swanson store. The job included snow shoveling, maintaining the diesel tanks and recording weather observations for the seaplanes. When the store was sold, the new owners weren't interested in following the weather. Lord-Wild took on the A-Paid contract under her name.

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