How's the Weather? Chaco Culture National Historical Park Nets Award for 75 Years of Keeping Records

(Top photo) The desert isn't always dry. Photo of the Chaco Wash Flood in July 2006 by Russ Bodnar. (Bottom photo): Left to right: Earl Breon of NOAA presents the award to Superintendent Barbara West, Chief of Interpretation Russ Bodnar, Park Guide Lauren Blacik, and Fee Coordinator Ramona Begay. NPS photo

The weather seems to be a subject of almost universal interest, but have you ever wondered how meteorologists gather all those statistics from remote locations? One answer is found in a recent award to the staff at Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico.

Every day for 75 years, employees and volunteers at Chaco Canyon have faithfully recorded daily weather observations for what's now known as the National Weather Service. That's a lot of useful data, and it sometimes takes extra effort to ensure that the daily weather check doesn't get overlooked in the midst of a busy day, an unexpected crisis—or some unusually uncomfortable weather.

There are other parks that have colder or hotter weather, but Chaco Canyon has some pretty impressive extremes. A summary of the area's weather notes, "During any typical summer, spring, fall, or winter day, a visitor to Chaco might experience a 50ºF (28ºC) temperature swing from the chilled moments before sunrise to the heat of late afternoon. But during the course of the year, from arctic-like winters to sweltering summers, temperatures can vary as much as 144º (80ºC). Chaco's record high temperature of 106ºF (41ºC) occurred on July, 13, 1942 and the record low temperature of -38ºF (-39ºC) was recorded on December 12, 1961."

In years past, checking the daily high and low temperature and precipitation was literally a hands-on experience, since it required a trip to an outdoor "instrument shelter" and rain gauge and physically resetting the equipment. These days, the job is a bit easier with high-tech digital readouts, but it still requires consistent attention to detail and the daily schedule.

That dedication recently brought a representative from the National Weather Service to the park to confer the agency's Honored Institution Award for 75 years of service in collecting daily weather observations.

Although the official weather station records at the park go back three-quarters of a century, the history and tradition of tracking the weather at Chaco Canyon actually goes back much longer. A park spokesperson noted, "While conferring the award on February 10, 2011, NOAA employees Earl Breon and Maxine Pacheco noted that there had actually been a weather station in Chaco Canyon for over 100 years."

"It turns out Richard Wetherill, the enigmatic first excavator of Pueblo Bonito, was a meteorologist in addition to an archaeologist, trader, and rancher. After his murder in 1910, various other landowners and employees of the Chaco Canyon Trading Post monitored the weather station. The Park Service finally moved the station four miles and took official control in 1935."

Park employees have been paying close attention ever since. At the visitor center, interpreters field thousands of calls every year about the weather, and most can rattle off the latest highs and lows from memory. While accepting the award, park employees were anxious to tell the NOAA representatives they endured a -26 degree night the previous week.

“It almost felt like we were getting an award for that, too,” said Chief of Interpretation Russ Bodnar.

The park website includes some interesting information on the weather at Chaco Canyon, and if you're curious about the current weather conditions and forecast for the area, you don't have to call the park—you can find that information on the National Weather Service website.