Weather observer wins national honor

At his home 8 miles northwest of Homer, weather observer Allan Crawford makes daily records of maximum and minimum temperature and precipitation. 

“Weather is what happens every day,” he said in comparing climate to weather, but Crawford, 73, also could be talking about his dedication as a National Weather Service Cooperative Weather Observer.

“What happens every day” is that for 37 years — that’s about 440 months or 13,500 days — since Oct. 2, 1977, Crawford has recorded the weather. That’s just three years shy of the 40 years of almost unbroken weather records made by Thomas Jefferson from 1776-1816. Last month, Crawford received the Thomas Jefferson Award named after the third United States president. Eight such awards were given nationally this year. Crawford was the only Alaskan to receive it.

“This is a very big honor,” said Francie Roberts, a former National Weather Service employee and now a Homer High School teacher and Homer City Council member who encouraged Crawford to be a cooperative weather observer. “It’s pretty unusual to get it.”

At a small ceremony on Oct. 20 at the National Weather Service forecast office in Anchorage, James Nelson, science and operations officer, presented Crawford the award “for unusual and outstanding accomplishment in the field of meteorological observations in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson.”

The criteria for the Jefferson Award are pretty strict. Crawford had to be a weather observer for at least 25 years — he hit that 

milestone in 2002. He also had to have received the James Campanius Holm Award, named for a Lutheran minister who is the first person known to have taken systematic weather observations in the American colonies. Crawford got the Holm Award, also in 2002. Other criteria include taking observations under hazardous or extreme weather conditions, continuously providing observations despite illness, and taking consistent efforts to ensure early receipt of data at collection centers.

“Not everyone goes above and beyond like Allan,” Nelson said.

The Cooperative Weather Observer program solicits volunteers like Crawford to take daily measurements of temperature and precipitation. The weather service provides equipment such as a rain, snow and moisture collection cylinder, thermometers and a snow-depth gauge. Observers fill out a daily log book, compile that into a monthly sheet and send it in to the weather service.

Nelson said Crawford adds detail to his daily observations. Other observers might write that the precipitation was frozen, but Crawford writes “ice pellets” or “snow grains.”

“He would report when there was fog that day. He gave us a lot more information than 99 percent of observers do,” Nelson said.

Crawford also made another effort, Nelson said. While weather observers submit information monthly, Crawford told Nelson that as long as he was recording data, why not call the forecast office and give daily reports?

“So he started calling us and telling us what is there,” Nelson said. “We would get extra information from him.”

“He’s a good enough weather observer he has a direct line (to the weather service),” Roberts said of Crawford.

A retired U.S. Postal Service worker, Crawford grew up in Ohio near the Michigan border. He came to Alaska to attend the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where he graduated with a bachelor of science in biology in 1969. He developed a respect for the minute details of science when after graduation he did research in microbiology at UAF. In Ohio, he had done sporadic weather observations. While a student at UAF he would record extremes of temperatures and include them in letters to family and friends. Crawford credited Roberts with getting him into the Cooperative Weather Observer program.

Roberts said she met Crawford when she worked for the National Weather Service in Homer and he came to her office to talk about weather.

“He was so in tune with the weather, and I said, ‘There’s this opportunity where you can get a weather station set up in your yard,’” Robert said. “I said, ‘You’re doing this for free. You could get a better weather station in.’”

Crawford said there’s nothing really remarkable about what he does. “Anybody can do it,” he said. “I’ve done it.”

Nelson said Crawford does more than that. He lined up and trained back-up observers to record information while he was on vacation.

“He hardly missed a day in the last 37 years, even when he was in the hospital,” Nelson said. “He made a call to let us know he would not be able to make observations for a couple of days.”

That kind of commitment isn’t easy, Roberts noted.

“Every day you have to trek out behind your house and go read the information at approximately the same time,” she said. “It would be easy to say when you come home from work, ‘I don’t feel like it.’”

Crawford said the routine of observing weather is something he fell into.

“At this point, I don’t want to give it up. It’s been done so long, it’s like breathing,” he said. “I guess I might kind of be dedicated to it.”

A private person, Crawford said he doesn’t want the exact location of his house known. He lives at the higher latitudes somewhere in the North Fork area. While he takes careful daily measurements, Crawford said he doesn’t keep track of extremes like the highest temperature or the heaviest snowfall, so don’t call him for that information. He also doesn’t try to evaluate overall climatic trends.

“I take the data as it comes and don’t say anything about the pattern,” Crawford said.

He said he doesn’t even want to draw any conclusions about his station being representative of a particular lower Kenai Peninsula weather area. “You’d be impressed how micro the climate is here,” he said. “Each place is unique. You have to measure it with its own yardstick.”

As a long-term observer of weather in one area, he also didn’t want to make judgments on climate change.

“The climate is doing nothing new on a long-term scale. What’s happening is nothing new,” he said. “We are recording such a short little stretch of it. We can’t visualize it. In the end, nothing happens the same way twice. It’s all cycles.”

Despite Crawford’s reluctance to make broad observations of weather patterns, the National Weather Service has used his data to do just that.

“It grew our knowledge of Homer weather,” Nelson of the weather service said. “It gave us a better understanding of what’s going on … We use it to do updates to our forecasts and be able to go back and say, ‘This is what happened. This is why it happened.’” 

Michael Armstrong can be reached at