Weather Watchers for Athens

Part II: 1890 to 1996

Athens Historian Volume IV (1999)

by Gayther Plummer

Continued from Part I [published in Athens Historian, Vol. 3, No. 1, October 1998]

When the Weather Bureau was established by Congress in 1890, the social, political and economic consequences became worldwide. Ancient meteorology would change academically and realistically.

The Weather Bureau initially was attached to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Athens had cooperative weather watchers in those days, including a professor/observer at the University of Georgia who for nearly  two  decades   taught  meteorology the  European  way  to engineering and agriculture students.

Headquarters for the Weather Bureau in Georgia was established in October 1891 when the first official meteorologist arrived in Atlanta. All early records were maintained in that facility.

Fifty years later, commercial aviation claimed the foremost need for weather information, and Congress transferred the Weather Bureau to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Later, the Weather Bureau became the National Weather Service with the Athens Weather Service office at the airport.

Beginning in 1973, American satellites focused on the earth’s weather conditions. Meteorological technicians in the Weather Bureau and the National Weather Service were gradually replaced with sensors that automatically detected clouds, rain, snow, and heat. On April 1, 1996, all official weather data for Athens were collected and dispatched electronically, and computers made the maps. Several watchmen had been hired to keep an eye on the electronic equipment. The National Weather Service closed manned operations in Athens on December 19,

1998 and the era of federal “met-techs” ended. Details about these events are more revealing.

Athens Co-op Observers for the Weather Bureau

At the outset in 1890, Professor L.H. Charbonnier had been keeping weather records at the University of Georgia for more than two decades. His data for many years went to the crop and weather service in Georgia’s Department of Agriculture.

W.P. Briggs, a clerk and ticket agent for the Georgia Railroad, inherited a rain-gauge and a thermometer used by Dr. Hugh N. Harris. Briggs became the Weather Bureau’s cooperating weather observer at his home, 329 East Clayton Street. He filed reports monthly through February 1893 with the Atlanta Weather Bureau office.

The next co-op weather observer was W.D. Hammet, who recorded data at his home, 217 Chattanooga Avenue, from March 1893 to April 1898. From May 1898 into March 1911, Charles D. Cox, also an agent for the Georgia Railroad, was the co-op observer, at 259 Church Street, his home.

About the turn of the century, sufficient data had been collected since 1858 that a Climatology of Athens, Georgia was published in February 1902 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Climate and Crop Service: Georgia Section. The last half of the 19th century was cooler, but not wetter, than the last half of the 20th century. [Those measurements do not support the recent concept of global warming because statistical errors were much greater than the difference in temperature.]

Charles C. Cox, who lived on the Jefferson Road that paralleled the railroad, collected weather data between March 1911 and July 1918. He was followed by E.C. Cox, a conductor for the Southern Railway, who collected weather data at his home, 630 College Avenue, between August 1918 and July 1920.

During the next five years, beginning July 1920, James W. Davis, a mail carrier, made official co-op weather records at his home at 178 West Strong Street. Mrs. J.W. (Minnie) Davis continued those records into January 1929.

Geography, World War II, Weather Politics

In January 1929, Professor E.S. Sell, an economic geographer with an agricultural background from the University of Georgia, became the official co-op weather observer for Athens. Professor Sell kept the thermometer,  rain gauge, and wind instruments first at the Georgia State Teachers College (now the U.S. Navy Supply Corps School), then at his home, 650 Cobb Street. He was Athens’ esteemed weather man for 42 years, through February 13, 1971, when poor health caused him to retire. His station, Athens Station No. 1, was closed forever.

Since 1906, the huge Agricultural College and the Forestry School at the University of Georgia were using federal weather reports for classroom studies and research projects. Refined weather data were needed; Professor W.O. Collins collected that data on the Agronomy Farm as Athens Station No. 2 from October 1935 through 1944.

Weather conditions in Europe and the southeastern United States during the 1930s were background to political developments that benefitted   Georgia   and   Athens.   Senator   Walter   George   and Representative Carl Vinson chaired key U.S. congressional committees overseeing finances and the armed services. Frigid winters and dry summers were common throughout the Northern Hemisphere in the 1930s.

Weather   information   processed   by   agriculturally   oriented meteorologists did not satisfy the airlines, especially Pan American and Trans World Airlines. Airmail pilots and military aviators also wanted weather information that emphasized hazardous storms, fog and ice. Further, German air power in Spain in 1936 and blitzkrieg warfare over Poland in 1939 emphasized the need for aviation weather information. As stated earlier, in July 1940, Congress transferred the Weather Bureau from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to the U.S. Department of Commerce, where traveling conditions received priority.

In 1938, Richard Russell was growing in political stature, especially on the Senate Appropriations Committee and the Armed Services Committee. The new airport in Senator Russell’s hometown, Winder, was the site for official weather observations for the Civil Aviation Administration. Funds began to flow for numerous airports and landing fields throughout Georgia. The Clarke County airport was among these; it later became the Athens Airport and in 1987 was renamed Ben Epps Airfield. Georgia got more major airfields for pilot training than any state of equivalent size.

The new Clarke County Airport was upgraded during 1942 to accommodate the Civil Air Patrol. The Civil Air Patrol trained citizen pilots to support national defense efforts when the United States entered World War II. Those new facilities helped the University of Georgia get a federal pre-flight program for training U.S. Navy cadet pilots in 1943. That program included rigid courses in meteorology, academics and mechanics.

World War II greatly boosted meteorology. On July 20, 1943, the Athens Weather Bureau Airport Service was installed to support pilot training. In those days the weather people were Clyde Johnson, Helen Williams and Lisa Spratlin. Their Climatological Data were published in January 1945 for the  “Athens Airport, 4 miles East.” M. Alma Cooke, a Weather Bureau employee, succeeded Johnson and became the official observer from 1949 until 1955.

In addition to the observations taken at the airport, in August 1948, Professor Collins reactivated Athens Station #2, the agricultural co-op weather station. Its new purpose was to measure pan-evaporation, wind, and temperature as indicators of the drying power of the air – a factor more useful to farmers than aviators.

After WWII, the Weather Bureau and the National Weather Service became lax about its 1940 agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture – to provide undiminished services to agriculture. Climatic factors causing torrid heat, droughts and killing frosts in Athens, for example, were as important to agriculture as storms, fog and the jet stream were to aviation. Nevertheless, funds for teaching, research and services generally favored aviation meteorology. Such contentious issues yet arose in the “1990 farm bill” when Congress authorized agricultural weather programs equivalent to aviation weather program. But agricultural weather programs were never funded.

Meanwhile in Athens, Southern Airway began  commercial operations during 1949 with J.B. Giles as the station manager. Soon the staff included Charles “Red” Hancock. Both men were weather oriented and often substituted for daytime Weather Bureau personnel. Hancock eventually became an official Weather Bureau observer.

A Federal Meteorologist

Major changes came to the weather services in Athens during September 1955 when Horace Carter, a mathematician and certified meteorologist, arrived as the Meteorologist in Charge of the local Weather Bureau facility and State Climatologist for Georgia. Those jobs were soon separated, but Carter started two organizations that would continue for a while.

Carter initiated a Weather Bureau project that launched radiosonde balloons twice daily. Those balloons carried instrument packets to gather wind and temperature data incrementally up to 70,000 feet. The data were transmitted to the base station.

The Weather Bureau staff observed and recorded ongoing changes in atmospheric conditions. Each day two surface weather maps for the United States were hand drawn. Personnel rotated their work shifts daily; also trainees and interns rotated in and out of the station for many years.  All   weather  information  went  onto  a  weather  wire  that encompassed  all  federal  units  that  processed  data.  Each agency extracted data for its  own needs, such as the monthly publications called Local Climatological Data for Athens and Climatological Data for Georgia. Various weather data products were then wired back to Athens and posted for pilots. Pilot briefing was a prime function of the station.

Carter, as the state climatologist, wrote numerous statistical summaries of climatic conditions throughout Georgia. Bound volumes of his summaries were deposited in Athens libraries. He was the most experienced weatherman in the area when two tornadoes devastated parts of Athens in March and again in May 1973. After these storms hit Athens, the Weather  Bureau  brought  in  storm  experts  to  assess damages. By that time, during a period of retrenchment in all federal personnel, the Weather Bureau had closed Carter’s climatology office.

Athens Weather Service Office and the National Weather Service

The weather radar facility at the airport began in 1966 and covered a 24-county area. It detected severe storms, especially tornadoes near the ground, in northeastern Georgia for 30 years. During that time, 22 of the counties covered by the facility had tornadoes. Overall, 114 tornadoes were observed, 17 deaths and 391 injuries occurred. The 1973 tornadoes were the most injurious.

The weather radio service started 24-hour broadcasts in March 1978. The transmitter, located at Neese, had a 40 mile radius that included Athens, 12 miles south.

In the mid-1970s, the Athens Weather Bureau became the Athens Weather Service office, serving as a National Weather Service office, a branch of the Weather Service Forecast office in Atlanta, within the Southern Regional Headquarters of the National Weather Service at Fort Worth, Texas; as a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) within the U.S. Department of Commerce.

The Athens Weather Service office staff was deeply embedded in layers of federal bureaucracy. The staff worked under reams of National Weather Service rules and federal protocol. This was a highly formatted operational system with little room for individual initiatives.

After Horace Carter, the meteorologists in Athens included John D. Watson, G. Cleve Holladay, B.J. Smith, and Clay “Gill” Russell. One “met-tech,” H. Frank Peek, began duty in 1966, retired in 1991 and worked temporarily into 1998. At the peak of operations, in the late 1980s, about 17 persons staffed the Athens facility. Kenneth E. Daniels was the last meteorologist assigned to the Athens Weather Service office; he retired December 14, 1998. The personnel I knew were always dedicated government employees, but were seldom enthusiastic about their jobs.

The Automated Surface Observing System

Computers arrived in the mid-1980s and revolutionized weather information with high-tech data processing.

Severe budget adjustments were imposed on the entire National Weather Service during the early 1990s. The end of the skilled weather observer was in sight. Plans were announced to close the Athens Weather Service office in 1993, but several more years lapsed. Eventually all certified employees transferred elsewhere or took early retirements.

The staff was replaced completely on April 1, 1996, by automated sensors that collected and transferred data electronically. This Athens Automated Service Observing System (ASOS) facility was attached to the National Weather Service Forecast office in Atlanta, but it was operated by the Federal Aviation Administration.  It cost about $125,000 and needed only watchmen.

 ASOS facilities nationwide generated a phenomenal amount of new weather data. A whole new era of data acquisition, number crunching, and forecasting was developing; weather information became more abundant, more timely and more available than ever before.

An Undetected Gainesville Tornado Under Doppler Radar

The old radar facility at Athens’ airport was replaced by a new long-range Doppler radar unit at Falcon Field in Peachtree City, south of Atlanta. This unit is part of the nationwide Nexrad system designed especially to detect violent winds. Units were placed so the scan by one radar, on the fringes of range, would overlap some territory scanned by another radar unit. Thus, Georgia was completely covered by storm- watching units with automated alerts and warning systems.

During the night of March 19-20, 1998, the National Weather Service forecasters in Peachtree City, 25 miles south of Atlanta, were aware of numerous severe thunderstorms moving through North Georgia ahead of a cold front. Before dawn on the 20th, those storms diminished – except for one expanding storm cell. Severe storm watches for North Georgia, issued by the National Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma, were allowed to expire at 6:00 a.m.

At 6:30 a.m., a tornado began cutting a swath of devastation from the north side of Gainesville, Georgia, into western North Carolina. The high-velocity winds, on the ground in the vortex of the storm, escaped several Doppler radar units. No funnel cloud was reported or seen by observers. A dozen people were killed; over 100 injured. Damage to poultry houses, cattle, a school and homes amounted to $13 million in just Hall County.

Into the Next Millennium

Every household benefits daily from an abundance of weather information, as better storm detection systems evolve and weather forecasts and climatic outlooks improve. Current weather information and technical data via television and the Internet will be more rapidly available for pilots, farmers, the public, and TV weather reporters, so most Athenians can be “weather-wise.” Some however will continue to be “other-wise.”

Gayther Plummer is a retired University of Georgia professor of ecology, botany, natural resources and state climatology