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Mark Newby, who calls himself ‘Hamilton's Weather Guru’ is one of a growing number of amateur weather watchers who are part of a weather network. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Mark Newby, who calls himself ‘Hamilton's Weather Guru’ is one of a growing number of amateur weather watchers who are part of a weather network. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

How hard-core weather hobbyists shape the daily forecast Add to ...

The first rule of Weather Club is you have to really like talking about Weather Club.

Not just anyone can be a member – it helps to have a monitoring station in the backyard. Two is better. A history of obsessively tracking temperatures is a definite bonus. Throw in a knack for social media and it may just be enough to gain entry into one of the most exclusive clubs in the country – the Weather Network’s Official Observer Club.

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Membership: 77.

“Before getting involved I thought I was the only one who had such a big thing for the weather,” says Mark Newby, 39. “But after meeting all these people I see it’s such a passion and we’ve become one big family. All because we get to ask, ‘Hey, what’s your weather like over there?’ ”

The hot and dry summer of 2012 has turned the conversation-starting question into a national obsession. Environment Canada estimates 93 per cent of Canadians are checking the forecast every day.

“There’s a level of interest you don’t see with a lot of things because it’s such a big country and we all want to know what it’s like somewhere else,” says David Phillips, Environment Canada’s chief climatologist. “That’s a common experience we all share.”

Monitoring local weather was once the sole duty of solemn farmers with notepads and pencils who would report daily findings to Environment Canada to help supplement their records.

But it’s no longer a solitary undertaking.

With technology making high-end monitoring systems more affordable, and social media making it easier for serious hobbyists to find each other, the Weather Network has realized there is a wealth of data just waiting to be aggregated and repackaged for the millions of viewers who rely on it for updates.

The television network – which broadcasts to every Canadian home that receives basic cable or satellite television service – created an exclusive, invitation-only Facebook group to bring together weather watchers from across the country so they can share their hard-core data with one another – and the network.

Not just anyone can join. They must be willing to contribute regularly and exhibit a certain level of professionalism and maturity. Most importantly, their information has to be good.

“There’s a process,” Mr. Newby says. “They have to let us know they are interested and as a team we have to keep an eye on the person and their postings and see how they interact before they can become an observer. It just weeds out people who are not very accurate.”

In exchange for the meeting place, Official Observers share their photos and data with the television network’s 190,000 Facebook fans on the Weather Network’s publicly available page, and act as the channel’s unofficial voice as they respond to viewers’ questions and engage others in conversations about what’s happening in their neighbourhoods.

And they do it for free (if you don’t count the occasional hat or T-shirt).

“What’s in it for me?” Mr. Newby wonders aloud from his apartment in Hamilton, Ont., which is equipped with two weather stations, three computer screens and a television that is rarely tuned to any other non-weather-related programming.

“The Weather Network is the only show in town and it’s a place where I know I can share my stuff and other people will use the information. I’ve never really thought of the money part, just getting my name out there is enough.”

Mr. Newby is the unofficial leader of the group, and for good reason. He’s been tracking weather since he was 8, when he would step out of the house every morning at exactly 7 a.m. to take his reading. He remembers the exact day the network went on the air – Sept. 1, 1988. He spends hours each day making maps and graphs to share with anyone who is interested.

“Everyone knows me as the weather guy at work and in my family,” says Mr. Newby, a waiter whose evening hours allow him to indulge his true passion during daylight hours. “I’ve become their go-to person, which is cool. I like that; people trust me.”

It’s the kind of dedication that sends shivers through Jeff Hutcheson’s weather-reading soul. As the weatherman for CTV’s Canada AM, he has been providing updates for millions of Canadians for more than 15 years. But unlike Mr. Newby and his band of hobbyists, he’s no fanatic.

“I make no bones about that,” he says. “I just take what Environment Canada does and I put it out there. I’ve never pretended to say what I think will happen with the temperature, even though there are lots of non-meteorologists on television who seem willing to do that.”

It’s a testament to Canadians’ weather-tracking fanaticism: If he’s not accurate, he often receives tweets while on the air, as people at home disagree with the forecast he is giving for their community.

“The typical feedback is usually about how I said it was 15 degrees and they send a picture of the snow landing on their back deck,” he says. “But I’m trying to let you know what the whole country will be like at the best time of the day.”

There’s a dark side to Canada’s obsession that isn’t often spoken about, says Mr. Phillips, arguably the most quoted man in the country when it comes to the science of weather.

He receives threatening e-mails and has been confronted on the street by frustrated viewers demanding accountability. Last week, someone told him that he must be a terrible grandfather.

“When you dig down into some of the nasty comments you realize that some people really do think we are manufacturing the weather,” he says. “I often wonder why people can be so mean-spirited at times.”

The weather is ever changing, and no matter how many Official Observers and ordinary Canadians monitor radar screens and watch the sky, nobody will ever know with 100-per-cent accuracy what’s going to happen in the next few hours.

“People used to want to know what to expect in their region during the day. Now they want to know exactly what is going to happen at 2:08 p.m.,” Mr. Phillips says. “Anyone who is in the business of forecasting the future is going to have a few bad days.”

The uncertainty is what keeps the weather watchers watching. From his apartment, Mr. Newby is updating a national map that shows the previous day’s temperatures. When he wakes up today, he will spend the first hour crunching raw data to create his own forecast.

“I like to try to do my own before I look at anyone else’s,” he says. “I’m not a meteorologist. I didn’t go to school for this. I didn’t have the marks in science or math. But things are always changing, and I need to know what’s going on when people ask me. Because they do ask, and I really like that.”

CLUB CHATTER  

Lisa Marie Hodder

It is the hottest day we have had yet. It is +28 with a humidex of +33. Feels like its +100 out there lol. I have to go to work in this heat soon …

Mark Newby

Weather Tidbit: We have all experienced muggy and warm overnight low temps, but nothing compares to Death Valley, California, yesterday.The lowest temp reached on Thursday was 42 C, after a high of 49 C.

Tony Annyschyn

Good morning and Happy Friday the 13th! Old skool weather time: sunny and 79 right now, feels like 93 already! Expecting a high of 86 this afternoon … will feel like 97… cannot completely rule out a wayward thunderstorm. Conditions more unsettled tomorrow and Sunday. High of 82 on Saturday … 86 for Sunday, humidex more noticeable (likely to be at least 100!). Enjoy.

Ilonka Venier Alexander

Hot one here in Port Maitland with the return of an unwelcome friend … humidity. Did not check temp upstairs; on thermometer here it says 61F. Busy day. Baby cardinals and racoons in the yard.

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