Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering in the College of Engineering at the University of Michigan


University Climate Station Moves to New Location

Posted: September 13, 2017

University Climate Station Moves to New Location CLaSP and National Weather Service staff prepare the Climate Station for move.

This past July, the historic University of Michigan Climate Station on the east lawn of the Space Research Building was moved to a brand-new location at Matthaei Botanical Gardens on Dixboro Road. The station had been at the North Campus site since moving from Central Campus in 1974, and this latest move is another step in the station’s long journey from its origins in the early days of the University.

According to the University of Michigan, An Encyclopedic Survey (Wilfred B. Shaw, Editor, 1951), the importance of meteorological studies at the university is apparent as far back as 1849, when the Regents’ report to the superintendent of public instruction included this passage:

“… Not an instrument, even, for Meteorological purposes, is to be found in their [the Regents'] inventory, notwithstanding the subject is becoming every year one of increasing interest to the scholar and poetical [practical?] man, and awakens the attention of our national and other Legislatures.”

A reference to meteorology and climate studies can next be found in the university 1852-53 Catalogue as “Lectures upon the subjects of  Meteorology and Climate” as part of the Agriculture course offerings. These lectures were given by the Reverend Charles Fox, first a “Lecturer on Theoretical and Practical Agriculture,” and later, professor.

The Reverend Fox died in 1854, but interest in the study of meteorology persisted. Later that same year the University Regents approved the purchase of “meteorological instruments” on behalf of Alexander Winchell, professor of physics and civil engineering. In October on that year, the record notes:

“A memorial was received from Professor Winchell stating that the University is now in possession of a complete suite of Meteorological Instruments and recommending that some provision be made for the keeping of a regular record of Meteorological Observations at the University. Whereupon, it was ordered that Professor Winchell procure a bound blank book ruled according to the forms issued by the Smithsonian Institution and keep therein a record of regular Meteorological Observations at the University.”

Professor Winchell recorded observations in Ann Arbor from 1854-57 and his notebook was sent to the Smithsonian Institution for publication. Winchell also included the observations of two other Ann Arbor men who’d been keeping records: Dr. H. R. Schetterly (1852), and Lum Woodruff (1852-56). Winchell eventually became a professor of geology and paleontology, and in 1859 was appointed to be State Geologist of Michigan for the second geological survey of the state.

At some point afterward, the Regents decided to shift responsibility for meteorology, as noted in Regent Hubbard’s compilation of bylaws [1922]: "The Director of the Observatory shall have charge of the Observatory and of the astronomical and meteorological instruments and apparatus.”

The Observatory mentioned is the Detroit Observatory, which is located on the U-M Central Campus, roughly 40 miles west of the city of Detroit. The facility was so named to honor the generosity of Detroit city residents in raising funds for its construction.

The University’s third professor of Astronomy and director of the Detroit Observatory, Mark Walrod Harrington, considerably elevated the standing of meteorology during his tenure. Upon his arrival, he secured funding for more instruments, and meteorology courses began to be offered in the Department of Astronomy. Harrington started keeping detailed records of his meteorological observations at Michigan in 1880, and in 1884 he established the American Meteorological Journal, serving as its editor until 1892.

In 1891, Harrington took a leave of absence from the University of Michigan to help reorganize the Federal Government’s meteorological efforts, and in July 1891 he became first Chief of the U.S. Weather Bureau. After his departure, meteorology courses were omitted from the Department of Astronomy. However, the personnel at the Detroit Observatory continued to maintain the meteorological instruments and record their observations.

Meteorological studies eventually returned to the University in 1909, this time to the Department of Geology, and the subject has been a part of the University’s curriculum since that time. The study of meteorology, the atmosphere, and climate sciences has expanded significantly since the early years of the 20th century. Classes in these and related subjects are now offered in a variety of departments and disciplines in the College of Engineering and the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.

Although Professor Harrington left the University, the business of the climate station continued and the routine of daily meteorological observations were maintained. Beginning October 1st, 1891, a daily observation record has been kept, uninterrupted, for the past 126 years. Not a single day passed without a record. This means the information gathered from U-M climate station is one of the longest continuous climate data records in the state of Michigan.

Why is this important? Climate & Space researcher Dr. Frank Marsik puts it this way, “Our understanding of our climate, as well as how it has changed over time, is based upon long-term and continuous observations. For the indigenous peoples of the Great Lakes and other regions, such observations are part of a large body of traditional ecological knowledge, which has been handed down through generations via oral and written histories. At many locations around the world, such long-term and continuous observations have been made using climate observation stations, such as the station that has been maintained her on campus for over 100 years.”

“But,” says Dr. Marsik, “we also need to differentiate between ‘weather’ and ‘climate,’ as our station provides information about both, and each represents a different potential use for the data.” Weather can be described as representing short-term variations in such elements as temperature, precipitation, and barometric pressure, among others. But climate is a longer view, and represents slowly changing aspects of the atmospheric and hydrological systems and their interaction with land surface. When researchers study climate trends, they’re typically looking at statistical summaries of 30-year periods. Continuous data records are critical for contrasting one 30-year period with another.

As researchers look at the climate in a specific region, they’re not only interested to see if the magnitudes of average temperature and precipitation are changing, but also if the magnitudes and frequencies of extreme temperature and precipitation events are changing. Continuous weather observations are the key.

As an example, Dr. Marsik recently compared the severity of the 2015-16 winter season with the three most/least severe winter seasons on record at the station. “Without a continuous data record,” he says, “such a comparison would not have been possible. At the very least, a gap in the data record would not allow us to accurately characterize the severity of a given season. If these gaps were large enough, we might not have a record of a particular season at all.”

Beyond answering basic science questions regarding local climatic changes, a long-term continuous record is also valuable in assessing possible climate-related causalities of changes in plant, animal, and insect populations over decades. As Dr. Marsik notes, “Understanding how our changing climate impacts such natural resources and biological communities can help researchers develop effective climate adaption strategies. Such strategies, in turn, can help communities to mitigate the effects of climate change on agriculture, and urban infrastructure.”

Key instruments currently used by the U-M Climate Station:

  • Standard 8-inch rain gauge: Measures 24-hour precipitation totals (rainfall or melted-equivalent of frozen precipitation)
  • Fischer-Porter rain gauge: Measures 15-minute precipitation totals
  • Belfort rain gauge 
  • Cotton Region shelter: (aka a Stevenson shelter), an instrument-shielding structure that holds minimum/maximum thermometers, a hygrothermograph, and an instrument below the shelter for measuring the soil temperature

The instruments above provide the following measurements:

  • Temperature: Maximum, Minimum, Current (also continuously recorded via hygrothermograph)
  • Relative Humidity: (continuously recorded via hygrothermograph)
  • Precipitation: Amount, type, intensity, and times of occurrence (15-minute values are alsorecorded via the Fischer-Porter rain gauge)
  • Snowfall: Amount, (measured hourly during storms)
  • Snow Depth: Amount (7 a.m. & 6 p.m., other times)
  • 4-Inch Soil Temperature: Maximum, Minimum 


In addition to the station-based measurements, University of Michigan Weather Observers supplement these observations with a suite of other observations, including:

  • Occurrences of: Fog, Ice Pellets, Glaze (with thickness), Thunder, Hail (with size), Damaging Winds (speed and direction), Lightning (frequency and type), Flooding, Hazardous Road/Travel Conditions, more
  • Wind Speed and Direction: (hourly average and peak gust from CLaSP Davis System, Ann Arbor Airport, technician equipment, and other systems) 
  • Cloud Conditions: Hourly (via technician observation and NWS/airport sites)
  • Visibility: Hourly (via personal observation and NWS/airport sites)

Observations are taken twice daily at the Climate Station (7 a.m. & 6 p.m.) and reported to the National Weather Service (NWS). Each month, summaries of the collected data are prepared and sent to the NWS and National Climatic Data Center.

The climate station also provides data to a long list of clients, including the Ann Arbor Public Schools, Washtenaw County Road Commission, Huron River Watershed Council, Washtenaw Community College, Michigan Climatological Office, Indiana State Water Survey, Midwestern Climate Center, National Weather Service (climate and hydrology), Federal Aviation Administration, National Climatic Data Center, United States Historical Climatology Network, and various other departments/units within the University of Michigan, among many others.

Since its establishment at the Detroit Observatory in 1880, the U-M climate station has resided in various locations over the years. Each site is carefully chosen based on station location criteria set forth by the National Weather Service, as well as with an eye to maintaining the continuous data record. The immediate environment surrounding the station must be similar enough to its predecessor so the data gathered there would not be significantly different from data gathered at the previous site. There is also an emphasis on location longevity to help maintain the consistency of the data. The process of selecting and moving the station to a new location takes time and attention to detail in order to meet the required conditions. Once a proposed site is located, it must pass a final inspection by the National Weather Service prior to use.

The climate station has moved just four times since its inception. In July 1944, after 64 years at the Observatory, it was relocated to the Natural Science Building (now the Edward Henry Kraus Natural Science Building) on North University Ave. In October 1956, the station moved across the Diag to the East Engineering Building, and on Halloween, 1974, it was moved up to the east lawn of the Space Research Building on North Campus where it remained for the next 43 years.

About a year ago, Climate & Space department researchers began to scout around for a new site the U-M climate station. As with the previous locations, site longevity and environmental stability were among the primary criteria driving the search. Eventually, a location at Matthaei Botanical Gardens was proposed. This was a prospect that excited Professor Robert Grese, Director of Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum.

"When we learned that the historic Climate Station was going to be moving from North Campus and there was a chance it could come to Matthaei, we worked hard to see if we could come up with sites that might meet the Climate Station's needs. Having used data from the station in the past myself, I needed no convincing about the station's value, and I was determined to help keep it on campus if at all possible.” The Climate & Space team evaluated the proposed site along National Weather Service scientists, and it was determined to meet the required criteria.

Professor Grese was very happy with the decision. “We are thrilled to be able to host the station at Matthaei, as the data from the station will be invaluable to researchers and classes using our site for field-based studies, particularly as climatic conditions continue to change.  For us, it bolsters the value of Matthaei as a serious place to do research and engage students." 

Dr. Marsik was also enthusiastic: “Given the educational mission of Matthaei, the placement of the U-M Climate Station there makes sense. This is a great partnership opportunity for both the Climate & Space department and the Botanical Gardens to provide visitors with first-hand information about the important links between our climate and sensitive ecosystems.”

And if the past is any indication, the Climate Station will likely call Matthaei its home for quite some time.

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