March 8, 2013

Forecast from the Past

By Eric Bond
Eric is an intern in the Archives division of the Research Center.

Recently the US Weather Bureau donated to the Montana Historical Society their surface weather observations from the 1920s to the 1980s. These observations were stored by the Weather Bureau in large binders with awful pea green covers. In order for them to enter the archives, however, they must be extracted from those binders so that these records can be stored safely. When I say safely, I don’t mean that the binders are dangerous, they aren’t, except to the eyes. The main concern is with the dangers to the materials themselves. The goal is to make these records, daily records from the Helena Airport, capable of being read and used by the public and historians for years to come by storing them in boxes that will not leech acid into the paper, and therefore extending their life. Taking the reports out of the binders is a time consuming task, with little in the way of variety and mental exercise, so naturally they gave it to me, the intern.  What is interesting is not the task, but the materials that the task deals with.

When I said daily records I don’t feel I gave a proper account of what these records are. There is a monthly summary, which includes the temperature, precipitation, wind, sunshine for each day of the month, as well as if there were thunderstorms or reduced visibility. The monthly summary also has averages of these things. The daily reports are of further interest. They have notes for every hour giving temperature, wind direction and speed, and remarks on specifics. On March 2, 1956 at 12:08 p.m. the remark reads “STNG MTNS W”, an arcane language that I don’t feel qualified to understand , but apparently the “STNG MTNS W” was done by 2:07 p.m. Trying to figure out what those remarks mean is part of the fun, a little mental exercise. They are also excellent sources for those interested in environmental history, looking for change in Montana’s environment over time, or someone looking at a specific date in local history who wanted a better understanding of the weather at that time, or maybe you just want to look at the weather on your birthday.  For all of these reasons the Surface Weather Observation records will be entering the Research Center catalog soon, after I get done taking them out of their binders and more capable hands get done with them.