With a Nation Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration patch pinned over a sheriff’s department logo on his sweatshirt, former Franklin County Sheriff Dennis Pike opened the hatch to the worn box that holds his weather measurement tools and checked a thermometer for the day’s lowest temperature.
After reading the information in the small box on stilts housing meteorological instruments, Pike trudged back across his snow-covered yard to write down the information.
Pike, 75, has taken these measurements three times a day for the past 47 years, ever since he became a volunteer for the weather administration the same year he entered law enforcement.
He’s the most recent Farmington weather observer in an unbroken chain of observers and data that dates back to 1881, nearly a decade before a government weather observation program existed.
His wife, Sheila, traditionally records the morning observations and he does the second reading in the afternoon. If it’s raining or snowing, he’ll measure the weather every six hours.
The readings have gotten easier in recent years, Pike said, because of digital equipment that allows him to record information while indoors, though he still has analog equipment outdoors to test its accuracy against digital equipment and to show curious visitors.
The third reading of the day, he said, happens at midnight; and afterward, the data from the last 24 hours is sent online, generally before 2 a.m.
“Though I don’t go to bed just yet, because then I have to have some lunch and maybe watch some CNN,” he said.
Pike is part of a national program of 11,000 trained observers who three times a day collect meteorological data for the National Weather Service. According to the service, data gathered by the observers is used to track climate change, forecast the weather and help local officials manage water resources. It also serves as evidence in billions of dollars worth of lawsuits annually.
Pike said his time-consuming volunteer work has never interfered with his law enforcement career. In fact, he said it often helped; and the more he learned about weather, the more he learned weather data could be used not just in investigating weather-related accidents but in nearly every type of case, including burglaries and major crimes such as homicides.
“It was a great asset,” he said. “In just about every type of criminal act, weather can be an essential and helpful part of prosecution. It was just real handy to have someone on the inside that had this information.”
Pike still will supply the weather information for cases, though attorneys tend to check the information online instead of calling him as they did in the 1970s.
“The prosecuting attorneys and the defense attorneys think maybe there’s something in the weather that can be used as a defense,” he said.
He recalled a burglary case in which his information settled a debate in favor of the state.
“The witness said, â€˜Yes I did see him. I did recognize this individual. The moon was full and it was bright.’ And the defense said it was cloudy. Guess who broke the deadlock?”
Along with helping law enforcement, a handful of snowplow drivers call Pike after every winter to make sure they are billing on days that it snowed. In the days following Christmas, he traditionally is called to help a few residents work their newly received barometers, which are devices that measure changes in air pressure used to predict weather patterns.
Pike said he also started getting calls in the last decade asking about wind velocity and whether a private windmill would be a good investment.
“They’re interested when and where they might get the most air from a site. It’s the most-time consuming measurement, but I’ll gladly do (it) to provide those figures,” he said.
Long before Pike took the role of weather observer, Farmington first started its tradition as a site of weather observation — in 1881, when a professor from the former Abbott School began to record data on a daily basis.
Farmington was one of a few towns known to record weather prior to the formation of the weather observer program in 1890. The Farmington Historical Society has a plaque commemorating the unbroken chain of data. Pike said the farming community presented a need for the weather information, and because of the town’s tradition of higher education, even in its early years, there were resident professors with the know-how to collect the data.
Before Pike, the local weather observer was University of Maine at Farmington professor Charles Preble. He retired when poor health prevented him from being able to handle the duties.
That’s when the weather service asked Farmington’s Department of Civil Defense and Public Safety, which is now the Franklin County Emergency Management Agency, where Pike worked at the time, to take over the task.
He said he enjoyed the duties so much that later that first year he set up the weather observation stand at his home, where it’s been ever since.
“I just grew so attached to it,” he said.
Pike retired as sheriff in November 2012 after losing his re-election bid to Scott Nichols, but he remains active.
“Between serving as a selectman, a reserve officer, being a weather observer and being married, I stay busy,” he said
Kaitlin Schroeder — 861-9252 firstname.lastname@example.org