Category Archives: meteorology

“Aurora” over Providence

Note: this was originally published on March 6. It was updated on March 8 to include new information.

On March 6 we received local reports that the aurora was observed in New England just before sunrise. One of our visitors described seeing it from a rest area on Route 495 near Boston. There was another report from Vermont. Our automated all sky camera was running the entire night and captured the view above Providence. Also visible is the International Space Station (ISS) streaking through the sky about 500 miles from Providence as the planets Mars and Saturn shine brilliantly in the south.

ISS and aurora
A 10 second exposure taken March 6, 2016 at 4:54:18 AM EST. This image has been processed to make it easier to see the stars.

During the night the camera recorded 3,750 images of the sky. North is at right, west at bottom, and the zenith is at center. The field of view is about 140 by 90 degrees, capturing most of the sky above Providence. The images can be processed to produce a time lapse movie that shows 5 minutes of changes in the sky per second of video. Click on the image below to watch an excerpt. A number of artificial satellite can be seen streaking through the sky just before dawn.

Our sky camera has been in operation since the spring of 2008. We’ve never captured images like this before. Continue reading “Aurora” over Providence

The Weather Bureau in Providence

“In Philadelphia I dragged out a colorless and an unhappy existence till September, 1904, when to my delight I was ordered back to New England, and this time nearer the centre of civilization. (Of course by that I mean Boston, which is the “hub of the universe” the “Athens of America”, the “Centre of Culture”, and last but not least, the home of the humble baked bean and the sacred codfish). I was sent to Providence, R. I., and have remained here ever since and hope to continue my residence here. By a happy combination of circumstances I have lived in the classic halls of Brown University ever since my arrival in Providence. The location and environment are eminently satisfactory.”

– George Francis Field, “Harvard College Class of 1901.” June 1911

University Hall Weather Bureau
An instrument shelter on the roof of University Hall.

In addition to the weather station at Ladd Observatory there was another on the Brown campus. Located on the roof of University Hall it was operated by the U.S. Weather Bureau. The pole behind the chimney at left was likely used to support the anemometer, an instrument to measure wind speed. Continue reading The Weather Bureau in Providence

Observing the “rain-bands”

The Leonid meteor shower was approaching and as the astronomers prepared cameras to capture the event they must have wondered: will the skies be clear tonight?

Leonids 1898
Astronomers preparing cameras to capture the Leonid meteor shower, Nov. 14, 1898.

Prof. Winslow Upton taught astronomy at Brown from 1883 until his death in 1914. He also had a keen interest in meteorology. He had been a professor of meteorology at the Weather Bureau of the U.S. Signal Survice from 1881 until 1883. In 1884 he was one of the organizers of the New England Meteorological Society and operated a weather station at Ladd Observatory starting in 1890. We can gain some insight into how he might have forecast the cloudiness of the sky by noting a curious instrument to the left of the cameras in the photo above. Continue reading Observing the “rain-bands”

Thundersnow

During the Blizzard of Feb. 8-9, 2013 there were reports of thunder and lightning amidst the heavy snowfall and high winds. The lightning detector on the roof of Ladd Observatory recorded a great deal of activity late Friday night into Saturday morning with the peak occurring just before midnight. Most of the strikes were along the southern coast of Rhode Island, but some were observed about 350 miles to the south over the ocean. For more information about thunder snowstorms see Scientific American.

thundersnow
Plot of lightning strikes detected by our weather station during the Blizzard of Feb. 8-9, 2013. The activity was not as strong as a summer thunderstorm, but was unusual for this time of year and very rare for a blizzard.

The summit station at El Misti, Peru (19,200 feet)

“The night is passed at the hut, and the final ascent to the summit made on the second morning. This occupies several hours, as the animal stops to rest every fifteen or twenty feet at this altitude. On two occasions I was obliged to walk a short distance to cross snow which had drifted across the path, and realized the extreme difficulty of breathing during the exertion required.”

“The effect of the altitude upon me was chiefly to cause headache, sleeplessness and partial loss of appetite. On one occasion while at the summit I experienced a decided feeling of faintness for a short time.”

– Winslow Upton, “Physiological Effect of Diminished Air Pressure.Science, 27 December 1901

El Misti Summit Station

During the academic year of 1896-97 Prof. Winslow Upton took sabbatical from his work as Director of Brown University’s Ladd Observatory. He spent ten months at the new southern station of the Harvard College Observatory (elevation 8,050 feet) in Arequipa, Peru. His primary goal was to measure the geographical position of the station before astronomical observations could commence.

During this time he also made four ascents to the summit of the dormant volcano El Misti, which was the site of recording instruments (pictured above) maintained by Harvard. At the time it was the highest meteorological station in the world at an elevation of 19,200 feet. Continue reading The summit station at El Misti, Peru (19,200 feet)

“The Red Skies” of 1883

“It is impossible not to conjecture a connection with the volcanic eruption in the Sunda Straits, by which, on Aug. 26, the island of Krakatoa disappeared wholly from the face of the earth.”

“The terrible nature of this outburst can hardly be realized: the sky was darkened for several days, the noise was heard two thousand miles, magnetic disturbances were noted, the tidal wave was distinctly felt at San Francisco, and the atmospheric disturbance was sufficient to cause marked barometric fluctuations, which were noted by the barographs on the continent, in England and America, for several succeeding days.”

– W. Upton, “The Red Skies.Science, 11 January 1884

During the fall of 1883 there was a remarkable atmospheric phenomenon which “attracted great attention not only from the general public, but from scientific men, who have endeavored to give a satisfactory explanation of it.” At the time that he wrote those words Winslow Upton had just accepted the position of Professor of Astronomy at Brown University. Prior to this he had been Assistant Professor of Meteorology in the U.S. Signal Service from 1881. The phenomena that he endeavored to explain were the “recent fiery sunsets” seen throughout the world. Continue reading “The Red Skies” of 1883

The first weather station at Ladd Observatory

Ladd weather station
The first weather station as it looked in the late 1890s

Regular meteorological observations were made at Brown University by Alexis Caswell (1799-1877) who was Professor of mathematics, astronomy and natural philosophy. Caswell began recording these observations in 1831 and his “Meteorological Register; Providence, R.I.” was published in Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge. Caswell kept these records until 1876; after that date the records were kept by the City Engineer.

Weather observations for Providence, RI continued at Ladd Observatory soon after the building was constructed in 1890. An instrument shelter was installed on the deck of the building next to the dome. These weather records were kept by Winslow Upton (1853-1914) who was Professor of astronomy and the first Director of the Observatory.

A modern automatic weather station is operated on the roof of Ladd Observatory today, just a short distance from the location of the original instrument shelter.