His job has had 54 years of highs and lows

Shore weather observer is precise and popular

September 03, 2002|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

ROYAL OAK -- John Swaine Jr. says that in his little part of Talbot County, this summer has been the driest since 1930. And he can prove it.

He'll be 80 this month, and the retired farmer has been a backyard observer for the National Weather Service -- dutifully scribbling down the daily highs and lows, precipitation totals, wind gusts and cloud cover -- since 1948.

On top of that, Swaine has records back to 1891, dusty documents he found a few years ago in storage at the University of Maryland, College Park. He spent a day copying the hand-printed readings, then made a crude but effective binder for them out of thin pieces of plywood, wood screws and duct tape.

With record drought and heat gripping the Eastern Shore this summer (despite the weekend downpour), Swaine says he has been downright popular, with folks calling all the time with questions about the weather.

In an age of the 24-hour Weather Channel, Internet sites, boardwalk weather cameras and Doppler radar, Swaine's meticulous record-keeping is about as low-tech as you can get, but extremely accurate.

He has done it exactly the same way for 54 years, if anyone's counting. And Swaine is counting. It appeals to his precise nature.

"It started out as kind of a hobby for me since about 1940," Swaine recalls. "My folks gave me my first rain gauge, and then the weather bureau wrote me asking if I was interested and offering me better equipment. Little did I know I'd still be doing it in 2002."

The equipment is pretty simple. Everything is in the yard near the 250-year-old house on Pleasant Point Farm that his father bought in 1921, the year before Swaine was born. It's the farm where his son, John Swaine III, has planted soybeans and corn that have been as parched and shriveled as every other farmer's this year.

First, there is the little white shelter with slats that look like shutters. It houses two thermometers. One contains alcohol and records the low temperature; another, filled with mercury, registers the high temperature. Atop the three-bedroom bungalow that Swaine built on the property 50 years ago is an anemometer that measures the highest wind gust of each 24-hour period.

Nearby, next to a small, neglected apple orchard, sits the brass rain gauge, which looks something like a spent artillery shell turned on its end. The gauge, which Swaine says would cost hundreds of dollars to replace today, hasn't been moved since the weather service shipped it in 1948.

For most of the summer, that gauge has been dry. But in the past week, Swaine's gauge has registered nearly 5.5 inches. It's too late to rescue the Shore's parched corn crop, but the late-summer rain might help the soybeans, he says.

If anyone among the state's 37 certified weather watchers has been at it as long as Swaine, Ken Pickering, the state's climatologist, doesn't know about it. Until a couple of years ago, he says, there was a station in Woodstock, near Ellicott City, that had operated for 100 years, but several observers tended that post over the years.

"Fifty years -- there aren't too many who've been around that last that long," says Pickering, who works at the Department of Meteorology at the University of Maryland, where the observers' data is archived for the National Weather Service.

Pickering says the weather service will begin providing new digital thermometers for observers next year, a change Swaine welcomes "as long as they're giving them away."

The upgrade in equipment won't mean any change in the number or location of observer stations, Pickering says.

That's fine with the 25 contractors, county and state agencies and others who subscribe to Swaine's monthly report, the same one he sends to state and federal officials. At $20 a year, it's a bargain, especially for builders who need to document the number of days they are rained out on jobs.

"John Swaine is a fabulous resource," says Easton architect Pamela P. Gardner. "You can listen to Baltimore weather, but John is so localized. He does everything practically on his kitchen table, but when it comes to weather, he's the dean."

Swaine does his work from a cluttered study with a view of Tar Creek a couple of miles from the Oxford-Bellevue ferry. He figures his land would be worth a fortune if developed, but the family will stand pat. His son John III, 45, has taken over the farming and plans to take over the weather station for Swaine when the time comes.

Swaine has been watching this year's paltry precipitation with a farmer's eyes, tallying the grim numbers in brown notebooks, his "books of knowledge" in which each month's numbers are written, then compared with the same day each year.

Scientists at the University of Maryland's Horn Point Laboratory, near Cambridge, have found Swaine's data valuable, too. They have used his rainfall numbers to calculate runoff into the Choptank River, and his reports on wind velocity have helped them document "wind tides" that are common on the Shore's marshes and creeks.

"I've never met the man, but he religiously sends us his monthly reports," says researcher Tom Fisher. "It's like clockwork, every month. I know by the first couple days this month, I'll be getting that August report."

That's what makes Swaine so popular with his customers and with reporters, who call frequently: He can rattle off the record highs and lows, good and bad years for rain, or maybe the last time a hurricane blew through the county.

Swaine says people always get a big kick out of his looking up their birthdays and ticking off the weather for the day they entered the world.

"Yeah, I have a lot of fun with that," he says.

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