Weather Observing – a Large Part of the Job

Note:- How to obtain an up-to-date weather report from a BC lighthouse

McInnes with weather instruments (lower half) – photo John Coldwell

One of the duties on most of the lighthouse stations, and especially on McInnes Island, up to 2003, was the reporting of local weather (weather visible in the immediate area of the station) to Environment Canada (EC) – earlier called the Atmospheric Environment Service (AES) – for re-broadcast to boaters, pilots and climatologists.

This became even more important after the Tropical Storm of October 1984 hit the British Columbia coastline.

Extreme Tendency November 05, 1988 – scan Glenn Borgens

Every three hours during the day, starting at around three o’clock in the morning we would collect the information on sky condition, visibilty, wind speed and direction, rain/snowfall, wet and dry bulb temperatures plus maximum and minimum temperatures, station pressure and tendency (whether pressure was rising or falling and how rapidly), and sea and swell height. This was then recorded on AES forms or in a notebook depending on the station. Not all stations reported or had the instruments for all observations. These records were forwarded to AES every month along with a Climate Summary for the month.

When the observation was completed and written down we then waited by the radio starting at 03:30 for our station name to be called. We would then transmit our weather to our local Coast Guard Radio station. These stations were located in Prince Rupert , Bull Harbour , Tofino , Victoria and Vancouver , British Columbia.1

Local Weathers (for the fishermen and coastal airline pilots) were transmitted first from all of the stations, then followed the Aviation Weathers2 (destined for local and commercial airline and helicopter pilots, including our own Coast Guard helicopter pilots) from maybe half of the lighthouses, and last, from only a few stations on the coast came the Synoptic Weather: which was composed of strings of five digit groups which were destined for the Forecast Computers in Vancouver and world-wide for plotting weather systems and creating forecasts.

This transmission time could take up to one-half hour if the station was sending out the total of three weathers. I must say though that those CG operators were tops in receiving our transmissions! It was almost a game to see how fast we could speak with an experienced operator. They could type as fast as we could speak! With a newcomer we were warned to go slow!

From certain selected stations we also reported a Sea Water Temperature which was collected once a day for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) (later renamed to F&O)

This was the start of our daily routine every day for seven days a week, all year round. Starting at 3AM PST (1100 UCT), the next report was started three hours later at 6AM, then 9AM, Noon, 3PM, 6PM and 9PM. (Confused with time zones, check out this page.)

Extreme Tendency February 22, 1999 – scan Glenn Borgens

After October 1984 we also had to record and report any Special Weathers which could include increases in wind speed, lowering of cloud height, weather obscuring the station (both starting and clearing and this included fog, rain, snowfall and smoke), increases in intensity of precipitation (rainfall, snowfall, etc.), waterspouts (small tornadoes on water) and thunderstorms with its associated lightning. All these had to be observed, recorded and transmitted to the local CG station whenever they occured and/or ended as in the case of fog.

To help us we had a comprehensive Manual of Observations (MANOBS)3 from AES, a one week course in Aviation Weathers and on-station training.

Lighthouse keeper training was not as long as the official AES Surface Weather Observer course which was four (4) months, but with the help of AES personnel and the manual we managed to get out very reliable weathers, and of course, we were on station and on call 24/7/365. (24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year).

Even though we only were supposedly paid for a sixteen hour day (2 keepers x 8 hours each) we were on call by pilots, boaters, fishermen, Coast Guard radio operators, and Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), private airline pilots, commerial coastal airlines and helicopter companies.

Many the time we were awakened in the dead of night for a weather report. Contrary to Coast Guard rules, we were on duty 24 hours a day. Thank heavens for the support of our wives! Most of them had learned the weather observing and reporting procedures (learned on their free time without benefit of a course or any other training) and could help out in emergencies. On some stations even some of the older teenage children could handle the weather reports and the radios and could help out with the weather reporting. It was a time-consuming, but interesting addition to our work.

We were in some instances a full-fledged weather observing station with all the equipment, designated call sign and recording books, but were paid a pittance as it was an extra duty over and above our job description as a Lighthouse Keeper. The maximum amount paid for a fully-equipped lighthouse Synoptic Weather station was approximately $1500.00 CDN per quarter (every three months) in the period 1970 – 2000. This was split  between two keepers ($750.00 apiece). Whereas the fully trained Surface weather Observer working only for AES could be earning more than $3000.00 per month plus Isolation Pay.

We loved the job but they could have paid us better and given us better benefits. We were doing the job of three, sometimes four, or five government departments and getting paid pittance. I fought for our rights many times as a Shop Steward but hit the brick wall most of the time! At least we were appreciated by the people that used our observations. Sometimes that was pay enough!

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Personal note: Before becoming a lighthouse keeper I took training from AES to become a Surface Weather Observer (which included Synoptic Weathers) over a period of four (4) months. When approved as a Surface Weather Observer I was then offered training as an Upper Air Technician (Radiosonde balloons), and served a year in the Canadian sub-Arctic at Norman Wells, NWT..

Click for a larger image.

Combined, this was a course of nine (9) months and I grew to love weather observing. On McInnes Island lightstation I collected the weather extremes that occurred in my twenty-five years there (1977 – 2001). They can be seen in the chart on the left. I started this after the Tropical Storm of October 1984. The Last Updated date refers to the last extreme that was changed on the sheet before I retired from the station.

I am sad to say now, that the lightkeepers are hard-pressed to do their weathers as many weather observing instruments have been removed and never replaced – equipment such as barometers, barographs, wind recording equipment, etc. All of this is the government working towards eliminating lighthouse keepers and automating the stations, but still, eyes are better than instruments and the keepers keep producing the weathers to help the public.

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FOOTNOTES:

1Later reduced to Prince Rupert, Tofino, Victoria and Vancouver British Columbia.

2 In 2000 the name Aviation Weather was changed to METAR – an acronym for METeorological Aerodrome/Airport Report which replaced the former Aviation Weather (SA). It is now the main observation code used in Canada to satisfy requirements for reporting surface meteorological data. Minimum reporting requirements include wind, visibility, present weather, sky condition, temperature, dew point, and altimeter setting.

3MANOBS – an acronym for MANual of OBServations. An online version is available here in PDF format.

June 24, 2014 – A new weather manual was released called MANCLIM (MANual of CLIMatological Observations and is available for downloading here in PDF format and viewing here in HTML format.

For photos of weather instruments see this Cambridge Bay weather site. Scan down until you find Weather Instruments.

– John Coldwell (Keeper on Pulteney, Kains, Pachena, Green, McInnes during the years 1969 – 2001)

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