Albany airport needs more accurate thermometer

— Photo from Albany International Airport
A plane at Albany County’s airport is sprayed with anti-icing fluid last February.

To the Editor:
If you have been following the latest monthly temperature trends, as provided by the National Weather Service, you might have noticed that we have had five months with below normal average temperatures, and only two that have been above this year (January and March).

In fact, if you go back to last year, you might have noticed a “cooling” beginning in August, as three out of the six last months of 2020 finished below normal. This was happening at the same time that many of the same months were close to record high levels worldwide. 

The National Weather Service issued its new 30-year climate averages in July 2021 (including the average temperature of the years 1991 to to 2020). This new set of averages indicated many of our monthly averages have warmed nearly a degree compared to the 1981-2010 averages. This would account for some of the cooler departures in recent months. A persistent trough has settled into the region for much of this time, accounting for some local cooling.

However, a much bigger concern is the actual thermometer located at the Albany International Airport. In July 2020, it was discovered that it had been running a degree too warm. The sensor was replaced and it was immediately noted it was running about three degrees too low (cool).

It took until mid-October 2020 for it to be replaced, but alas, the new replacement still appears to still be running at least two degrees too low. There are no signs of it being replaced anytime soon, at least before the winter.  

A thermometer is a basic instrument, originally measured by the response of mercury or alcohol in a tube, and can be calibrated quite accurately. The National Weather Service has a more complex one, via an instrument called Automated Surface Observing System.

It is well aspirated to prevent any “solar spikes” that many homemade thermometers might have if they are not located in a north position facing away from any sun. The instrument is required to be at least five feet off the ground to avoid any excessive surface heating that can happen near asphalt and other heat-absorbing materials.

The thermometer sensor is part of a complex computerized system that also records wind speed, barometric pressure, and precipitation, which is issued automatically with initially no human intervention. A weather observer or traffic controller is required to be on duty at the airport to quality control the data that is disseminated. 

One would think the National Weather Service, being the steward of accurate weather detail, would seek to have an accurate thermometer. We all have heard that a global average warming of just 1.5C (about 2.5F) could wreak havoc on our planet. So, if the thermometer at the Albany International Airport is measuring 2.5 degrees too low, as I believe it is, this cool bias reading might mask any significant warming.

However, according to the National Weather Service from the Silver Spring headquarters, the number-one client the Automated Surface Observing System thermometer is tailored for, would be the aviation community. The National Weather Service claims it relies on many volunteers for climate data for climate information, collectively called the Cooperative Observer Program or COOP.

Assuming that is the case, an accurate thermometer is just as critical to the aviation industry. If the actual temperature is 34 F, but the Automated Surface Observing System thermometer records a temperature of 32 F, the pilot might have to be concerned about freezing rain versus liquid rain, which makes a huge operational impact. 

Also, the National Weather Service, both locally and at the higher end, realize there is a two- to three-degree cool bias, but argue the sensor itself is not to blame. 

My question to them: Then what is it? So far, there has been no answer.  

How do we know the thermometer has such a cool bias? You might have seen our local TV meteorologists use the Pine Bush temperature readings instead of the airport for a more representative temperature.

I personally have a Davis thermometer myself, and have been keeping track of high and low temperatures for years. I live in the southwestern portion of Albany, away from the city heat island. I am on top of a small hill so my overnight lows usually ran about a degree or so warmer than the airport.

However, my high temperatures were usually within a degree of the airport’s temperature until July 18, 2020, the day the thermometer was changed at the airport. From that point on, with a few noted exceptions, my thermometer has been consistently running 2 to 3 degrees warmer than the airport, the same thermometer I have had for years. My thermometer’s readings are much closer to the Pine Bush’s for high temperatures, and to many of my friends’ thermometers. 

If you look at monthly temperatures at Pittsfield and Glens Falls, in the past months, they have been very close to the airport. In the past, both places would usually run a mean temperature (combined high and low temperature) closer to 3 degrees lower than the Albany International Airport). 

Perhaps the worst part of all this, is that our monthly records with this known cool bias, keep going out to the world and would suggest our climate is locally cooling, when really it is not. 

The folks at the local National Weather Service in Albany are not to blame. They have done all they can to inform the higher officials of the problem. I suggest you call your local Congress member and hopefully they can put pressure on the higher officials of National Weather Service to change the thermometer before further damage can be done to the climate records and have a reliable accurate temperature sensor.

Hugh Johnson


Editor’s note: Hugh Johnson, now retired, used to work for the National Weather Service.

Joe Villani, a meteorologist at the Albany office of the National Weather Service, confirmed for The Enterprise that the thermometer at the Albany International Airport is several degrees off.

“We’re definitely aware of it ….,” he said. “People at National Weather Service headquarters are looking into resolving it.”

Villani said it can take time to diagnose problems with equipment invented in the 1990s. It was noted in July 2020, that the thermometer was running too cool, he said, so it was replaced last October but continues to run too cool.

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