Volunteers chart weather through all its extremes

DULUTH, 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 United States 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, is out there again this winter, 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 across northeast Minnesota and northwest Wisconsin, and 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 month — Fowler seems to revel in the fame, if not the cold. His thermometers went as low as 35 below this month.

"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."


Embarrass is so cold so often because it sits in a valley where cold air pools each morning. Fowler lives in the cold part of Embarrass. He has two outdoor thermometers with indoor readings. Still, he 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 this part of the state, 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.

Thelma Johnson's family has been keeping weather records on her dairy farm 5 miles north of Wright in Carlton County for 49 years. Even after her husband, Walter, died six years ago, Thelma has kept up the effort originally begun by Walter's father, Martin Johnson.

"I'll keep going as long as I'm here," said Thelma Johnson, 88.

Network of volunteers

Across northeast Minnesota and northwest Wisconsin — 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 minus 37 earlier this month. 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."

Since 1890

The national network of observers was officially established under the 1890 Organic Act that established the Weather Bureau, although records kept in the 1700s by Benjamin Franklin, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, all avid weather watchers, still are used.

The data gathered by weather observers not only serves as historical reference, it now is being used to chart long-term changes in climate.

In the last year Steve Gohde, weather observer program leader for the Weather Service in Duluth, ran up thousands of miles on his vehicle visiting each of the 75 weather observer volunteer offices.

"It's a big commitment for people to make, to do this every day, and we want to show them they're appreciated," Gohde said. "The information they gather is really important. We couldn't do our job very well without them."

What To Read Next
Get Local