Local weatherman receives NWS 20 year service award

Todd ThorsonStaff Writertthorson@storycityherald.com
Local weatherman receives NWS 20 year service award

Tom Bell of Story City, who has been a volunteer weather observer for the National Weather Service (NWS) for the last 20 years, was awarded a 20-year length of service award recently. Bell began his tenure with the NWS in November of 1995. He provides precipitation information on a daily and monthly basis for the Story City location. But Bell actually began his fascination with weather at an early age.

“I had a fairly large morning paper route between the ages of 9 and 13,” he said. “I needed to know what the weather would be like in the morning so I would know how early I would need to start each morning in order to deliver my papers in a timely fashion.”

Bell grew up in a housing area three miles south of Ames. When he finally gave up his paper route at 13, it was split into three normal sized routes. Soon after that he began working at his dad’s gas station in Ames, and still had to worry about the weather because he rode his bike back and forth to work every day.

“There were no mopeds in those days,” added Bell. “I have always enjoyed the outdoors and getting up early. I still think early mornings are the best part of any day, summer or winter.”

The Story City weather station, which is located at the water/wastewater plant near the Skunk River, was intially installed in 1970, and for the first 25 years Jennings Sondall took care of it. Bell has now been taking care of the device for the past 20 years.

“It is a volunteer job, but I feel I’m doing my part, and the rewards are the satisfaction I get in helping out where I can,” he said.

“The weather information that Tom provides the NWS becomes a permanent part of the climactic record for the local area and nation,” said Brad Fillbach of the National Weather Service in Des Moines and Johnston. The data is used by many sectors, including the NWS, state climatologists and other in the public and private sectors.

“These records continue to acquire greater value with the passage of time,” continued Fillbach. “As concern increases about the effect of human activities on global climate, these unique and irreplaceable observations will be vital for the detection and description of any changes in climate.”

Iowa has nearly 300 volunteer cooperative weather observers and there are nearly 11,000 nationwide. The various observers are located at many locations, including homes, farms, municipalities, utilities, radio and television stations, to name a few.

According to Bell, there are various types of weather measuring instruments. Some, like the one in Story City, only measures moisture. Other units measure temperature, wind, barometric pressure and moisture. And a few measure all of the weather elements.

“When I first started taking care of the Story City equipment it had a paper roll of tape similar to the tape in a cash register,” explained Bell. “Every 15 minutes it punched holes for the time, plus the amount of moisture in the bucket. It had to be checked regularly to make sure the time was right and if the bucket was getting full.”

The precipitation bucket can hold around 15 inches. Sometimes, Bell recalls, the paper tape would rip or track wrong, so he had to constantly pay attention to it. Every first of the month Bell would have to change the tape and send the used tape to the NWS in Johnston in a pre-paid envelope that they would furnish to him regularly.

Now the tape has been replaced with an electronic read out, but Bell still has to check on the weather station. The machine also has its own phone number attached to it, so during heavy rains the weather service just has to dial the number to find out how much rain fell in the Story City area.

“Having all of these units spread out around the state allows them to know how much it rains or snows during a storm,” stated Bell. “They send out this information to all of the news services to help with their forecasts.”

Individual observers like Tom Bell have been taking daily measurements for decades, with even successive family generations providing records for over 100 years. The family in Iowa with the longest record was the Stern family of Logan, who reported from January 1860 to November 1960. The single observer with the longest Iowa record was Earl :Slife of Hawarden, who began observing on August 10, 1926 and retired July 3, 1993 - a total of 66 years, 10 months and 23 days.

“The nation owes a sincere debt of gratitude to the cooperative weather observers who have quietly and steadily built up what amounts to a priceless natural treasure in the finest tradition of volunteer service to their country,” commented Fillbach. “The United States government and others greatly appreciate this service and thank Thomas for 20 years of a job well done.”

Tom isn’t stopping at 20 years. He plans to continue doing his weather reporting for the NWS and manning the weather station in Story City for many more years. “It’s been fun and interesting,” he said, “and hopefully I’ll be able to do it for another 20 years.”