A Brief History of Scalia Laboratory and Meteorology at Ohio University

Ohio University’s Scalia Lab started with two courses designed to give students experience in forecasting and recording weather observations. At the students disposal were a Bendix Aerovane, a standard cottonwood instrument shelter, with a max and min thermometer, and a standard eight inch rain gauge.

Early Days

In 1981 two undergraduates, John Coulter and Mark Miller, asked if they could expand the forecasting program at Ohio University. They wanted to publish the forecast on an answering machine. They would climb to the top of Porter Hall and ascend the weather observations platform and then by turning a weather radio in just the right direction they could receive the National Weather Service forecast from Pittsburgh. Then by watching local weather signs and the television, they would prepare a forecast. They would put this forecast on the answering machine that had been bought for them. About two months later they asked for a second answering machine. Money was tight at the time and a request for a second answering machine seemed a little troublesome so the second machine included a counter. It logged 30 calls, which was the maximum it could answer in the first hour. A little extrapolation indicated that the first machine had just plain worn out; a third machine was purchased. It took 100 calls and that machine filled up as well. Also, the up-and-coming lab began to get calls from people who said that the line was busy.

The Scalia lab for Atmospheric Analysis started in 1984. Jon Skindlov (Now Dr. Jon Skindlov, Senior Research Scientist, Salt River Project, Tempe, Arizona) came to the lab in 1982 and started work as Scalia’s first associate director. John brought a wealth of experience with his work in Oklahoma City as an on air meteorologist for 8 years where he worked under the name of Jon Anders at KFOR.

Originally the signal for weather observation was acquired from the National Weather Service in Parkersburg, West Virginia. To get the job done, the lab had to lease a dedicated long distance line from ATT, which was always on. Prices kept increasing until the final month of the service when the bill was $600. To get around the problem the lab decided to contract with Alden Electronics in order to have a satellite delivery of the maps. The maps were delivered to a small satellite dish on the roof. While these dishes are common today, they were relatively unheard of in 1984. Often the signal was scrambled so the use of chicken wire around the dish maintained the signal.

By use of the DIFAX machine (really a large fax machine), the lab could receive maps from the National Weather Service. The number of maps received per day was limited by the nascent lab’s budget. When times were good, the lab would take as many a 40 maps per day. When the budget was tight, that number reduced to 10.

Exponential Growth

As call volumes continued to increase and machines continued to wear out, the lab contacted the Dictaphone Corporation and installed three lines to handle the volume. The call volume was counted and Scalia Lab found that instead of taking tens of calls per day, it was taking hundreds of calls. Even with three machines, the lab could not keep up with busy event days; snow, ice, and severe thunderstorms jammed the lines with calls. Again, the lab expanded and moved to a sixth line and system and two Dictaphone machines. In the first year of operation, Scalia lab recorded over 100,000 calls.

Three more lines and yet another Dictaphone machine were installed. Forecasters had to become expert at handling all three microphones simultaneously without letting them touch. Call volumes increased dramatically by the late 1980s call – over 400,000 calls per year.

The line was sponsored by numerous groups, such as Bank One, The Hocking Valley Bank and the College of Osteopathic Medicine.

In 1992, under the associate lab Director, Clark Earick, Frognet provided the lab with a free homepage on the Internet. Later on, Katy Fitzpatrick updated the web page to include current weather observations, a climatic summary page, and a staff page. Kevin Thiel then moved the website to the physics servers for increased stability, and expanded the number of products on the website to include climate analysis, hocking river, radar, satellite, social media, and winter weather analysis pages. The number of hits was small at first but now averages about 10,000 a month.

In January, 1999 a severe ice storm hit the region and during one 24 hour time period, the lab recorded 17,000 calls. This was the absolute capacity of the system. The lab served as a clearing house for emergency road information for the region.

Modern & Accurate

Today, the lab serves the southeast Ohio region and provides undergraduate students with the opportunity to gain real-time forecasting experience. The laboratory is also involved within the community, conducting outreach at local schools, working with organizations to promote weather literacy, and partnering with the National Weather Service in both storm spotter training and storm surveys in the region. Scalia Lab has its own Facebook and Twitter Pages, which relay important forecasts to the public and have helped to expand the utility of the website.

Additionally, undergraduate and graduate students are involved in numerous research projects using the software and hardware in the lab. These projects range from using a combination of radar observations with GIS information to study the movement and tracks of tornadoes, to understanding the climate of Antarctica through pressure reconstructions.

Dr. Ryan Fogt is the current director of the laboratory. Ian Bailey is the lab’s current associate director.

About Tim Scalia | 5.1mb pdf