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Beth Wischmeyer, Dickinson (N.D.) Press, Published August 31 2009

North Dakota woman has eye on sky as weather observer

TAYLOR, N.D. – Whether it rains, snows or hails, Arlene Bernhardt records it all.

Out in the country, at her home along a gravel road, the 78-year-old Bernhardt has her eye to the sky, monitoring and recording weather changes that help the National Weather Service keep residents in the know.

Inside and outside her farmhouse, she has weather-reading equipment and a log book. She fills out the book every day, without fail.

Bernhardt is one of the country’s approximately 12,000 weather observers. She has been recording the weather for 33 years.

“You live with it (weather) – especially on the farm – you’re always living with weather,” she said.

Her son David was a weather observer in high school, she said. He has been a meteorologist with the National Weather Service for 19 years.

“Once he went off to college, one of his brothers took over, but he was in sports a lot,” Arlene Bernhardt said. “I think I’ve been kind of a backup through the whole thing. When they’re all gone, I guess it’s ma’s job.”

Each day, Bernhardt logs the temperature at the same time, as well as any precipitation, wind speeds, and minimum and maximum temperatures.

Storms or anything unusual prompt Bernhardt to call the weather service. At the end of each month, she sends the agency her handwritten logs.

Weather, David said, is often a big part of conversations between him and his mother.

“Once she took it over, I think there was a certain pride in doing the observations,” David said. “I think she kind of adopted it as her own.”

Len Peterson, a meteorologist in Bismarck who heads the National Weather Service observers program, said weather observers are spaced about 25 miles apart. The state has about 160 of them, he said.

Bernhardt’s watchful eye can give residents advance notice of inclement weather.

“Whenever there’s something significant, she calls us instantly when it happens and alerts us that there may be something going out there, so we can monitor the situation and see where it’s going,” Peterson said.

“Say there’s a thunderstorm that’s going across there that dumps two and a half inches of rain in an hour. Then we can put out warnings for possible low-level flooding or heavy downpours and roads being washed out, based on a real-time report from a cooperative observer,” he said.

Bernhardt was given the John Campanius Holm award earlier this month for her diligence and accuracy.

“She deserved it,” her son said. “She’s been doing it for a lot of years, and she’s been very conscientious.”

The award is named for Holm, one of the earliest known weather observers, Peterson said.

For her own records, Bernhardt said, she keeps a five-year book and has almost filled two.

As backups, she has her son Dan and his wife, Lyn, who have a house on the farm property, record weather conditions when she’s not available to do it.

Peterson said it’s getting harder to find weather observers.

“People have become so busy,” Peterson said. “It’s very hard to talk someone into being a good, cooperative weather observer. Arlene, she was very interested in it and has always been dedicated to it, but you don’t see that a lot anymore.”

The ever-changing nature of the weather is something that Bernhardt said keeps her interested.

“In this country, you’re always hoping for rain,” she said. “We don’t want hail, so you’re kind of watching and seeing what’s coming up from the west and if it’s good or bad. It’s kind of nice to have the record, that’s kind of interesting.”

Bernhardt has six children, 15 grandchildren and four great grandchildren.

“There’s always somebody getting married or having a baby, and I have to make afghans for them,” she said with a smile and a laugh. But she plans to keep watching and recording the weather.

“I’ll do it as long as the good Lord lets me,” she said.

The Dickinson Press and The Forum are both owned by Forum Communications Co.