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96-year-old weather observer retires after measuring rainfall for more than 5 decades

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The National Weather Service has a network of over 8,000 volunteer weather observers across the country. They collect data that the service uses to fine-tune its forecasts. Ninety-six-year-old Dorothy Stebbins is one of the most experienced observers. She's been measuring rainfall in Ohio's Miami Valley for more than 50 years. As WYSO's Jason Reynolds reports, Stebbins is now passing her equipment down to her son.

(SOUNDBITE OF THUNDER CRASHING)

JASON REYNOLDS, BYLINE: When it storms, Dorothy Stebbins can tell you exactly how much rain has fallen.

DOROTHY STEBBINS: Come out here, and I'll show you the tank.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CLANGING)

REYNOLDS: The white, tube-shaped tank she uses to measure precipitation is about eight inches wide and three feet high.

STEBBINS: We go from 8 o'clock till 8 o'clock. We got a 24-hour span.

REYNOLDS: Stebbins leans over the tank and reaches a thin hand down into the tube.

STEBBINS: Then you have a measuring stick, and at 8 o'clock each morning, you take that reading. If it's over half an inch, you call it in, and Mr. Ekberg, he takes care of it from then on (laughter).

REYNOLDS: Mr. Ekberg is Mike Ekberg at the Miami Conservancy District. They work to make sure the great Miami River doesn't flood and harm communities in the Dayton area. They have dams and levees all along the river.

MIKE EKBERG: So basically, I'm kind of the water data guy, and we measure everything from stream flows to the amount of precipitation that comes into the Miami Valley to levels of groundwater in the aquifer. And we do a little bit of water quality work on top of that as well.

REYNOLDS: Forty-two people measure precipitation for the conservancy, but Ekberg says none of those observers has done it as long and reliably as Stebbins. He calls her a rock star.

EKBERG: It's that consistent, methodical collection of the data, doing it the proper way that observers like Dorothy do that yields really important results in terms of being able to make conclusions about how climate is changing here in the Miami Valley over the long term.

REYNOLDS: Now that Dorothy is retiring, her son Dan is taking over. And Dan's not just following in his mother's footsteps. His father actually took the job first after a man driving by the family farm saw his dad sitting on a tractor and hit the brakes.

DAN STEBBINS: He stopped, walked in and said to him, would you want to check and measure our water for us? And he thought the guy was crazy, and he thought it was a joke.

REYNOLDS: But it wasn't a joke. Dan's father started measuring rainfall, though he got sick soon thereafter. That's when Dorothy Stebbins took over.

STEBBINS: He had cancer, but he didn't know it back then, and it took him in a hurry. In fact, the first time he went to the doctor and they scheduled surgery for a day or two later, and from then on, he was pretty - not able to do anything, you know? So when he passed, and I called in.

REYNOLDS: Did doing the rain during that time, did it give you some sort of peace of mind?

STEBBINS: I looked forward to it, actually.

REYNOLDS: You looked forward to it?

STEBBINS: Yeah. I really did. It was just something to do every morning. And I mean, it seems a little thing. You think about a river, you don't think of all that goes behind it (laughter).

REYNOLDS: Even so, Dorothy Stebbins has been doing this job for a half century. And for anyone thinking about becoming a weather observer, she has some sage advice.

STEBBINS: The secret to this - a lot of this - getting up at 8 - you can go back to bed when you're retired.

(LAUGHTER)

REYNOLDS: Although her son is measuring the rainfall now, Dorothy says she's willing to fill in for him when he needs a break. For NPR News, I'm Jason Reynolds in West Alexandria, Ohio.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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