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Pa. man's eyes always on the sky

January 31, 2000|By DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - There's an array of sophisticated weather instruments mounted above Jerry Ashway's house, but when he began recording weather information more than 40 years ago one of his instruments was made of a milk carton and a hank of his grandmother's hair.

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"That's basically what started me was making a hygrometer with a milk carton," said Ashway, 58, whose weather observations for Chambersburg are often cited in The Morning Herald. He used a few strands of his grandmother's hair because they were long enough to use as "the humidity sensitive element."

A hygrometer records relative humidity and hair expands when wet and shrinks when it dries, according to Ashway. Attached to a needle, it recorded changes in humidity.

As snow was beginning to coat the pavement outside his Cornertown Road home Sunday, Ashway said he expected a total snowfall of 7 to 10 inches. That gave Sunday's snowstorm a chance of eclipsing the Jan. 30 record of nine inches in Chambersburg in 1966.

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According to his records, there was little chance of hitting the all-time high of 69 degrees on Jan. 30, 1947, or the all-time low of 3 degrees on that day in 1934.

Want to know the coldest day in Chambersburg? It was 22 degrees below zero on Jan. 21, 1994. The hottest day? July 10, 1936, when the mercury hit 107 degrees.

There was a drought last year, but how did 1999 compare to the average year for precipitation? Total precipitation was 38.96 inches, compared to the average of 39.86 inches. Ashway said a soaking 7 inches of rain in December helped close the gap. Unfortunately for farmers, rainfall was about half of normal during the height of the growing season from May to July.

Ashway said this winter is running about normal. Average snowfall through Jan. 30 has been about 17 inches and was 15.5 inches as the snow was falling Sunday.

The winter of 1998-99 was perceived to be warm, but snowfall was 31.9 inches. "That's right on the average for a normal winter season," Ashway said.

The number of "degree days" this winter have totaled about 2,700, compared to an average of 3,200 degree days by Jan. 30. Degree days are the difference between the average daily year-around temperature of 65 degrees and the actual temperature. A temperature of 35 degrees, for example, means a 30-degree day, he explained.

That's the formula home heating companies use when calculating automatic deliveries of home heating oil. A retired physical sciences teacher at Faust Junior High School, Ashway was on-call Sunday for Total Energy Services Inc.

"My current job is the result of a part-time job that turned into a full-time job after I retired," he said.

In his basement Ashway has volumes of weather data he and others have recorded back to 1921. His temperature records are complete except for "three days when the weather shelter blew over in the 1920s," he said.

There are two rain gauges in the backyard. "One is a straight indicator, the other writes a graph of when it happened and how much," he said.

Above the house are instruments recording wind speed and direction, humidity, barometric pressure and other information, which is relayed to his basement office. He subscribes to Internet weather services that feed him weather forecasts for the region.

Ashway was in junior high school when he began recording weather information and crafted his homemade hygrometer. Years later he began sharing information with and substituting for weather observer Robert Sellers, a funeral home owner who retired and moved from the area in the mid-1990s.

Ashway brought much of his equipment from Sellers when he retired.

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