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Observing the weather all in a day’s work for Shane

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Observing the weather all in a day’s work for Shane thumbnailArmagh Observatory Grounds & Meteorological Officer Shane Kelly pictured on Friday morning reading the temperature.

FOR nearly 20 years Armagh Observatory meteorological officer Shane Kelly has carried out the same morning routine of making the short walk from the historic building to the site's weather station, where he records crucial data used by the Met Office that forms the basis for our weather forecasts.

In doing so Shane, whose full job title is Grounds and Meteorological Officer, is honouring a long tradition at the Observatory, which stretches back over 200 years to 1794, when the first weather entry was recorded - just five years after the institution was established on December 27, 1794.

Back then the measurements were less complex, the early entries in the hard-bound books simply record two temperature readings, one outdoors the other indoors.

Over time additional readings have been added; wind and air pressures, sunshine levels, as well as underground temperatures and rainfall levels. Cloud levels are also determined by Shane using a scale measuring zero to nine (zero meaning clear skies to nine signifying fog).

Like his predecessors, Shane, starting at 9am each day (currently an hour later due to British Summer Time) carefully writes down each measurement, continuing a practice that has remained unbroken since the 18th century.

It's apt, then, in that some of the equipment he uses is the exact same as meteorologists would have used back in the 18th and 19th centuries.

He points to the Campbell-Stokes sunshine recorder, a glass sphere sitting within a curved metal frame that houses a piece of card, marked in white 'plus' signs accompanied by markings that denotes hours of the day. It's mounted at the bottom of a 30ft metal frame tower, part of the weather station site, and the card records the hours of bright sunshine as the glass sphere focuses the rays from the sun, burning a horizontal line along the card.

An invention made in 1853 by Scottish scholar and author, John Francis Campbell, the sunshine recorder also shares its name with Irishman Sir George Gabriel Stokes, an 19th century physicist and mathematician who modified the device in 1879 by removing the original wooden housing of the sphere and replacing it with metal.

The previous day's sunshine card is removed by Shane and replaced with a fresh one, and all in all, collating the weather data takes roughly 30 minutes to complete.

Once recorded, the data is then shared with the Met Office in Belfast, as well as one in Exeter, England.

It's a manual approach that over the decades has witnessed the slow introduction of new technological, automative methods. Inside the Observatory, for instance, a small metal grey box with cables attached externally sits on a shelf taking indoor temperature readings.

Nearby a much older piece of equipment, a Kew Pattern barometer, made of polished wood and glass, is mounted on a wall, measuring atmospheric pressure using mercury, its level visible through a clear vial.

The contrast in aesthetics is vast, and Shane reveals that it historic equipment that he finds more appealing.

Likewise, the manual approach is one that Shane wholeheartedly favours over digital-based automation methods.

To illustrate his point, he opens up one of the Observatory's earliest record books, he reads aloud an entry written on January 6, 1839 contained in the remark section that states concisely; "A tremendous gale in the night." The brief description refers to what later became known as the Night of The Big Wind, a powerful European windstorm that swept across Ireland, causing several hundred deaths and 42 shipwrecks.

"That's something that you wouldn't have with just data collected digitally," he insists. He then picks out another entry, this time from 1859 when on August 30 a "powerful Aurora [known as Aurora Borealis or the Northern Lights] " was observed in the skies above the city. "I'm sure you would also find comets, meteorite showers mentioned elsewhere... From a historical point of view, that's something that's lost, if you are historically minded," he explains.

Shane also believes that an entirely digital approach would have its drawbacks.

"The equipment is very expensive so budgets would be an issue," he explains, before stressing that the difficulty in relying solely on digitally collated data centres on questions over its reliability. "How do know that the data being collected is correct?" he adds.

Hence, keeping the manual tradition in place is what Shane is keen to see happen. "The will's there to do it," he says. "The recordings haven't been missed for 18 years. With manual readings I would like to see keep running as long as we can. I would like it to be manual indefinitely.

“Part of the integrity of it, is its unbroken longevity and you're probably going to lose that if you go digitally totally," says Shane. "It's a good tradition to be involved in, a very useful tradition."

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