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Historical data

It’s March 14th.

The middle of the month.

Six days to the spring equinox — the vernal equinox — the first day of Spring.

This is what The Legal Genealogist‘s home neighborhood looked like yesterday.

And… sigh… this is what it looks like today.

It’s slushing outside. Not really snow, not really sleet, some icky combination of both that the Weather Service describes as ice pellets. The kind of heavy stuff that threatens to bring down power lines.

Not to mention the fact that it’s cold. And slippery. And just plain nasty.

Sigh…

A day like today really reminds us of just how important the weather is to us — and it certainly was to our ancestors.

So… where do we go to get historical data about the weather?

A wonderful resource for folks in New Jersey is the Office of the New Jersey State Climatologist. That site has historical snowfall information recorded for more than 50 different locations as far back as the 1890s in some cases. The numbers used come from the National Weather Service, now part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). You can get a history of the National Weather Service at its website.

NOAA itself has a number of interesting offerings. It has its top weather, water and climate events list for the 20th century that you can review online or download as a PDF file. The NOAA News reports things like the 1899 arctic blast that paralyzed the eastern United States and carried ice down to the Gulf of Mexico.

And NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center offers a large number of options including maps showing temperature (current and historical conditions), snowfall, precipitation and more.

And there are a whole host of alternatives to these official sources:

• The Weather Base has some 33 years of weather records for New York City and at least some data for more than 41,997 other cities worldwide.

• The Weather Warehouse has Historical Monthly Weather Data “for over 18,000+ current and former United States weather stations for every year that each station reported” — which means, for example, for Central Park in New York City you can get data back to 1900, or for Decatur in Wise County, Texas, back to 1904.

WeatherForYou has a daily bit of weather history (for yesterday, you can discover that the term blizzard was first applied to a storm which produced heavy snow and high winds in Minnesota and Iowa in 1870).

• There’s still an Old Farmer’s Almanac, with historical weather data by states or by zip code, accessing weather archives for more than 1,300 stations across United States and Canada, going back to 1960, but more detailed customized access to historical weather info requires a subscription.

• Try WolframAlpha for weather information too. You can enter, say, “weather January 3, 1975 New York City” as a search term and get an amazingly detailed weather report. The data doesn’t go back all that far — but as far as it goes, it’s dynamite.

You can find out all kinds of information about weather disasters on GenDisasters — the website setting out “Events That Touched Our Ancestors’ Lives.” These include:

floods;
hurricanes;
ice and snow;
storms and lightning; and
tornadoes.

For the kinds of weather information we might want to add to our family histories, we might want to look at the official records of the government. By far, the bulk of the National Weather Service and Weather Bureau records are at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland. More than 90% of all the records held by NARA at there, with the National Archives branch in Seattle, Washington, coming in a very distant second. These include:

• Meteorological Records of the Surgeon General’s Office 1819-1916
• Records of the Smithsonian Meteorological Project 1848-91
• Records of Signal Corps Meteorological Work 1859-97
• Records of the Weather Bureau 1792-1965
• Records of Field Operations 1735-1979
• Textual Records (General) 1876-1972
• Cartographic Records (General) 1873-1960
• Motion Pictures (General)
• Still Pictures (General) 1880-19501

Some additional newer records are in the NOAA collection, record group 370.2

And, don’t forget, the weather has always been a hot topic (you’ll forgive the reference here in the midst of the snows of January) in the pages of our local newspapers.

Now excuse me, please, I’m going to go back to charging some more electronics… just in case…


SOURCES

  1. See generally “Records of the Weather Bureau (Record Group 27),” Guide to Federal Records, National Archives (http://www.archives.gov : accessed 26 Jan 2015).
  2. See ibid., “Records of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) (Record Group 370).”
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