A Century of Weather Tracking at Matanuska Experiment Farm

by | Jul 13, 2022 | Agriculture, Featured, Government, News, Science

Matanuska Experiment Farm

Matanuska Experiment Farm and Extension Center, just off Trunk Road.

Alaska Business

Sunny and 75.9°F but with clouds forming on Pioneer Peak: pleasant weather for celebrating a century of meteorological observations at the UAF Matanuska Experiment Farm and Extension Center near the Glenn-Parks Highway junction.

An Honored Institution

Technically, the records started 105 years ago, but only last week did the National Weather Service formally honor the farm’s centenary.

“Government’s a little slow, but we’ll get there,” said the agency’s Alaska regional director, Scott Lindsey, as he awarded a plaque recognizing the farm as an “honored institution.”

Only one other Alaska weather station, in Fairbanks, has an uninterrupted record of observations going back more than a century.

Jeff Johnson, the facility maintenance manager at Matanuska Experiment Farm, is chiefly responsible for recording observations nowadays. He consults instruments inside a fenced area alongside the driveway to the farm and notes the readings on a clipboard in a narrow, white shack. In summer, the data include air temperature at 8 a.m. as well as daily maximum and minimum, precipitation, wind speed and direction, water temperature, and the evaporation rate from a kiddie-pool-sized steel pan. On Wednesdays, readings include soil temperatures at 2 inches deep (the sod) and 6 inches (the fallow). After October, the station measures snow depth and daily accumulation.

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“I just want to thank those who get up every day and make the measurements,” says Lindsey. “There’s probably days when that’s not very fun, but it’s so important for us to have a full record.”

An automated station on a mast just a stone’s throw from Johnson’s recording shack was installed seven years ago, but Johnson says it’s incomplete and no data has ever been collected from it.

Lindsey notes that weather records from automated gauges in Alaska go back to the ‘80s, and hourly records in Anchorage go back to the early ‘60s. But the Cooperative Observer Program, with 10,000 partners nationwide, has data going back to its founding in 1890.

“It was citizen science before citizen science was created,” Lindsey says.

Outreach and Research

Jeff Johnson at Matanuska Experiment Farm

Jeff Johnson, facility maintenance manager at the Matanuska Experiment Farm, is the current custodian of measurements taken at the station.

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Weather records are just a small part of the mission of the Matanuska Experiment Farm. As part of the UAF Cooperative Extension Service, the farm is obligated to share its findings with the public, which was the bargain when the university received its original land grant.

Matanuska Experiment Farm Director Jodie Anderson says outreach and research happen all the time. For example, the farm is conducting trials on varieties of small grains and oil seeds, studying the persistence of pesticides in the soil, demonstrating 142 potato varieties (which the community harvests in the fall), and hosting community garden plots.

The farm also collaborates with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game on a large ungulate nutrition study, and the US Forest Service has been studying a plot of trees on the farm for the last twenty-five years, collecting long-term data that could lead to an injectable pesticide to resist spruce bark beetles. The farm also grows hay to feed wood bison at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Portage.

Forecasts and warnings based on the farm’s weather observations support all of those activities—and benefit agriculture directly. For instance, Anderson says, “Evaporation is really critical for farming because if you’re not putting back into the soil the amount [of moisture] that’s leaving, then you’re increasing stress on your plants.”

Observations also establish trends. “Weather is very fleeting. What happens today won’t necessarily mean anything about what happens tomorrow,” Lindsey explains. “Over long periods of time, those trends become apparent, and we can use those to determine what’s really happening with the climate.”

Brian Brettschneider, a climate researcher for the National Weather Service, crunched numbers from the farm’s century of measurements. He found a wild year in 1936: three days in June had high temperatures of 90°F, and the following month had four observed thunderstorms. Later that winter, the station reported snow cover on 167 days in a row, into 1937.

Since records began, the number of days with subzero temperatures dropped from forty-five to thirty-eight, while the number of days with highs above 75°F increased from eight to eleven.

Average annual temperatures at the station increased from 35.2°F to 37°F. Lindsey notes that 2°F is a small number but it means the difference between snow and rain on a 33-degree day.

With a doctorate in hydrology, Lindsey uses weather records to model the flow of rivers. “Observations in Alaska are few and far between” compared to the Lower 48, he says, “so a long-term record like this is just priceless for us.”

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