Meet the West’s oldest climate correspondent

Anna Mae Wright has spent seven decades recording the weather.

  • Anna Mae Wright checks the weather each day, then records data like temperature, precipitation and snow depth. On Aug. 19, the high temperature was 92 degrees Fahrenheit and the low was 57, with no precipitation.

    Jay Hemphill
 

In many households, 6 p.m. means dinnertime. But for 89-year-old Anna Mae Wright and her family, that hour marks another daily routine, stretching back more than seven decades: “Weather-reading time.”

Since the late 1940s, each evening Wright has faithfully documented the temperature, precipitation and other meteorological data outside her home near Redrock in southwestern New Mexico, using equipment installed by the National Weather Service. Over the years, the recording process has become a staple of daily life, fit in alongside tending the garden’s tomato plants, crocheting and knitting, and sending her four kids to school — at first in Redrock, a tiny, unincorporated outpost on a remote stretch of the Gila River, and later, 30 miles away in Lordsburg, after the local school closed due to low enrollment.

Wright began the ritual with her husband, Ralph, recording the 24-hour highs and lows and other readings on their 320-acre farm and mailing monthly reports to the National Weather Service. Since Ralph’s death in 1997, she has carried on the tradition mostly alone, sometimes helped by her 60-year-old son, Bill Wright. She now ranks as the West’s longest-serving member of the Weather Service’s Cooperative Observer Program, a network of more than 9,000 volunteers nationwide.

“The rural folks, they’re the most interested,” says Frank Kielnecker, a Weather Service employee in the regional office that Wright reports to. “I’ve never had to call her and say, ‘What’s the deal? You’re not reporting on time.’ ”

Although she has accumulated many awards honoring her decades of public service, Wright says she does not spend much time reflecting on her achievements. “I feel proud,” she says. “It gives me a sense of self-worth, I guess.” Her son takes pride in her dedication but sees it as entirely natural, since farmers and ranchers like them “tend to be interested in the weather anyway.”

Though their work remains largely anonymous, the cooperative observers are providing crucial information about global climate change. The crowd-sourced approach allows for precise data to be gathered from far-flung corners of the West, such as Redrock, and — in cases like Wright’s — provides a continuous record for which there’s no substitute.

 “It’s a long-term climate record at some very remote locations,” says Kielnecker, making it especially valuable to researchers who typically consider even 30 years a suitable window to examine climate trends. The records collected by volunteers make a difference on a local level as well, forming the most comprehensive daily source of temperature and precipitation readings. Short-term forecasts and even warnings for severe weather are often based on observer data, which are uploaded to the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, North Carolina, each month, and entered into a massive database that’s available to the public.

Wright’s routine has rarely varied over the years, although she no longer sends in written monthly reports. In 2006, she started submitting information by computer, after the Weather Service outfitted her with the appropriate equipment.

While her rhythm has remained constant, regional data show that the climate itself seems to be shifting on her watch. Average annual temperatures in the Weather Service’s Southern Desert Climate District of New Mexico reflect a steady climb, with the five warmest years all occurring since 2000 — including the sweltering years of 2014 and 2015. Yearly averages over the last 15 years have regularly been higher than those observed from 1901 to 2000, often by at least two degrees.

Unfortunately, weather observers like Wright are becoming increasingly rare, says Kielnecker, as rural communities lose population and fewer people maintain a lasting attachment to the land. “People don’t stick around anymore in a rural place as long as Ms. Wright has,” Kielnecker says, noting that participation in the Cooperative Observer program has tapered off in southern New Mexico.

But the steady stream of data from Redrock shows no signs of slowing down. Wright is still making meticulous notes about everything she observes from her ranch house — rain, snow, sleet, lightning, hail.  Her son, Bill, has taken over the family farm and says he’ll also take over weather-recording duties whenever her career draws to a close.

That could be a while, yet. “I think I’ll stay with it as long as they want me to, as long as I’m able to,” says Wright. “I like it.”

Former HCN intern Bryce Gray covers energy and the environment at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in Missouri. 

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