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John Myers, Forum Communications Co., Published January 07 2010

Weather observers count the cold

EMBARRASS, Minn. – No matter how cold it gets at your house this winter, take solace in knowing it could be worse. You could live in Embarrass.

Ever since Roland Fowler became an official National Weather Service reporting observer in 1994, Embarrass has been the coldest spot in the contiguous U.S. more times than any other location in Minnesota and among the most often of any station in the nation not at mountain altitude.

Fowler, 77, will be out there again this morning, whether it’s 4 or 40 below zero or colder, keeping a historical record, keeping Embarrass in the news.

He’s one of 75 such weather observer volunteers in the Duluth region and of 11,000 nationwide who dutifully record and report weather conditions every day, year after year.

While most of those volunteers go unheralded – including those in Orr and Littlefork, which were even colder than Embarrass earlier this week – Fowler seems to revel in the fame, if not the cold.

His thermometers went as low as 35 below this week.

“We’ve got a lot of notoriety because of this,” Fowler said, listing Embarrass appearances on the Jimmy Kimmel Show, the Weather Channel, national news broadcasts and “A Prairie Home Companion.”

“People come from all over to have their picture taken here,” Fowler said.

Embarrass is so cold so often because it sits in a valley where cold air pools each morning. And Fowler lives in the cold part of Embarrass. He has two outdoor thermometers with indoor readings. But he still goes outside every day to check the historic thermometer in his weather station.

Still, while Fowler keeps the coldest records and received a 15-year service plaque last month, he’s a veritable rookie in the National Weather Service observer system.

According to the Minnesota Climatology Office, the longest-running weather observer station in Minnesota is near Milan on the Opjorden family farm, where they have been reporting the weather since 1893.

In northern Minnesota, the longest-serving reporting station at nearly 103 years is the Cass Lake Ranger Station on the Chippewa National Forest, offering accurate readings every day since Feb. 1, 1907.

Across the regional northern tier – from Indus along the Rainy River to Prentice in Wisconsin, from Brainerd to Hurley – a network of 75 volunteers keeps the data coming each day: high temp, low temp and what kind of precipitation fell, if any.

Al Ringer has always been interested in the weather, especially as he tries to run a blueberry farm near Brimson, north of Duluth, where it hit 37 below Sunday morning. When Brimson’s veteran weather observer retired in 2008, Ringer jumped at the chance to have the Weather Service install a $300 thermometer and equally expensive rain gauge at his house.

“Everything is recorded digitally. The lines run under the ground into the house, and I can send it in online once every day … or it can store that data,” Ringer said. “We also measure the snow depth every day. For someone who’s interested in weather, it’s fun.”

John Myers is a reporter at the Duluth News Tribune, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.