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Rural Alaska

Ketchikan couple have measured over 17 years of Alaskan weather

  • Author: Danelle Landis, Ketchikan Daily News
  • Updated: November 18
  • Published November 17

This Nov. 2, 2018, photo shows Bill Hopkins taking a reading from a rain meter at his home in Ketchikan, Alaska. Hopkin and his wife, Wynn, have been recording weather measures for the National Weather Service since 2001. (Dustin Safranek/Ketchikan Daily News via AP)

KETCHIKAN — On the drizzly afternoon of Nov. 2, Bill Hopkins peered into the cylindrical rain gauge in the yard of his North End home. His wife, Wynn Hopkins, stood by to assist and observe.

Bill and Wynn Hopkins have been National Weather Service cooperative observers since 2001. They check NWS gauges installed in their yard daily and report their findings on rainfall, temperature, wind direction, weather changes, unusual weather events, snowfall and snow depth to the organization.

NWS meteorologist Wes Adkins wrote in an email to the Daily News that the program, facilitated by NWS Observational Program Leader Kimberly Vaughan, has about 30 participants in Southeast Alaska.

Adkins wrote that the coop program is helpful in "supplementing our climate record well beyond a few busy airports."

Bill Hopkins dropped the black metal measuring stick into the rain gauge and announced, "That is 0.37 of an inch in the last 24 hours, at this location."

He said that their location gets quite a bit less rainfall than the downtown locations.

"We get about 106.7 inches a year, on average," he said.

He pointed out the temperature gauge that is wired to a monitor in the house.

"We've only seen this below zero once," he said.

Wynn Hopkins said that was in about 2011.

The couple is attuned to many aspects of the weather, and different ways to assess it. Bill Hopkins gestured to the trees across the highway from their house.

"We pay attention to the wind," he said, explaining that he watches those treetops to gauge wind direction and speed.

To measure precipitation in the form of snow, Bill Hopkins said he does a bit of a math equation. He held up the clear rain gauge cylinder.

"I'll fill this tube with hot water, and I always measure how much that is. I'll dump it in there to melt the snow," he pointed to the larger container that holds the gauge, "then I take all of that together and pour it in here and re-measure it, and just subtract the amount of water I had originally, and that tells me how much moisture, or precipitation was in the snow."

He said the most snow accumulation they've measured was about three feet feet, in 2008. NWS wants to know both the total snow accumulation as well as the 24-hour snowfall. He uses a board about 12 by 18 inches to measure the daily snowfall.

Wynn Hopkins recalled one of the biggest surprises they've gotten in a different, unofficial snow gauge they have. She began seeing "tiger stripes" in the snow layers, and they realized it was ash from the 2005 eruption of Augustine volcano, located in Cook Inlet.

From their upper deck, they said they can see weather events over Clarence Strait coming toward the island. Bill Hopkins said that can help to report unusual events such as thunder and lightning. They usually call in those weather events by telephone as spotter reports , Wynn Hopkins said. The NWS SkyWarn spotter program is distinct from the cooperative observer program.

Adkins also wrote in an email that a Road Show NWS Juneau Open House training held in August garnered 10 new Ketchikan spotters at seven locations for the program.

The NWS spotter program was how the Hopkins family got involved at the beginning. Wynn Hopkins, who explained that she loves to try new things, said she became interested in the program when a weather spotter class was advertised. Weather spotters report to NWS, by phone or an online form, when they observe weather events.

Bill Hopkins said that although the NWS climatologists can see weather picked up on satellites on their computer screens, they also want on-the-ground reports of what is happening.

Although Wynn Hopkins was the first to jump on the NWS weather programs, Bill Hopkins had a long career as an Alaska Marine Highway System ferry captain before retiring in 2007. He has had a long, intimate relationship with weather.

"You never forget that stuff. When you're responsible for the ship, you pay attention to all that kind of thing," Bill Hopkins said, explaining, "There's times you'll have a forecast and then you'll see what's going on, and you'll make a decision. . I was on the (AMHS ferry Kennicott, so we had to make a choice whether we were going to go out into the Gulf of Alaska and cross it, or whether we were going to stay somewhere and wait for this one to blow out."

Bill Hopkins continued to recall his experiences with weather, as a ship captain in Alaska.

"The weather up here can be quite vicious, and sudden. You can even have a forecast that just falls to pieces on you." he added, "You gotta pay attention, too. It's not just reading the forecast, you gotta really look at it. You're feeling the ship, you're listening to that wind, you're looking at the sea, all those things go into making your decisions."

Wynn Hopkins said that Bill Hopkins' experience as a captain can help when it's her turn to make a report, as she's trying to assess conditions.

Bill Hopkins said 2018 has been quite remarkable in its lack of precipitation at their location. Bill Hopkins said they would need to receive 26 more inches of rain by the end of December to hit their normal average.

Program Leader Vaughan said1 in a phone interview that they "definitely need more coop stations" in Southeast Alaska, especially because the weather can vary widely between even small distances.

According to information at www.weather.gov, the requirements of becoming an observer are: Dedication to public service, attention to detail, the ability to learn and perform daily duties, and a willingness to allow measuring instruments to be placed on one's property, as well as to allow at least one annual visit by a NWS representative.

Vaughan said that those who want information on becoming a Southeast Alaska observer should contact her by email at kimberly.vaughan@noaa.gov.

Bill and Wynn Hopkins demonstrated the nitty gritty of how the reports are made, both on their computer and in paper log books.

In the computer version, they enter data into fields and also enter the estimated or observed times of precipitation on a chart. Even smoke and wind-blown dust have their own fields.

Each entry requires a short summary of the weather and its changes over the course of the day.

Each report that's created on the computer is sent to NWS offices in both Juneau and Washington, D.C., Bill Hopkins said.

In the logbook, Bill Hopkins manually enters data into a chart, with a summary in a column to the right labeled "remarks — severe weather — snow damage." He records annual snow and rainfall in that column.

Bill Hopkins said that about once per year, the NWS staffers visit their site and check the equipment, and, when the paper logbook is full, they take that back with them.

“They keep track of all these numbers, it’s amazing,” Bill Hopkins said.

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