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This Gibsons family has recorded the weather for more than 60 years

The Co-operative Climate Network has volunteers at 354 observation stations across the country. For Fran Heppel in Gibsons, her love of recording the weather started when she was in Grade 4. For the past 60 years, her family has recorded rainfall and temperature twice a day from their home on Gower Point Road.

As 2021 rolled out record-breaking weather over and over — that heat dome, the summer’s drought, the fall’s downpour and then the winter’s final snowy hurrah — one Gibsons woman quietly celebrated 60 years of her family recording it all. 

At her family home on Gower Point Road, Fran Heppel shares her love for talking about the weather.

It all started when she was in Grade 4, and her class was learning about the weather. Her mother, Maryanne West, thought Fran didn’t have enough (or any) hobbies. So, she contacted the responsible ministry (the Ministry of Transportation at the time) and persuaded them to send a rain gauge. The thermometers came from a man on North Road. Their first data entry for the Gibsons Gower Point weather station was officially recorded on Oct. 4, 1961.

It’s been nearly 61 years since then. When Heppel flew the coop, landing in Scotland, it was Maryanne who kept up the steadfast record from 1963 to 1998 (among her many volunteering efforts in the community). She would welcome the students from Cedar Grove Elementary for lessons, and gave reports to the local news on broken records. 

“My mom, she was the backbone. She did it for 35 years,” Heppel said. “When I was 11, I presume she did a lot for me, too.”

After Heppel renovated and moved back into the family home, West moved to Reed Road. For a period of time, the mother-daughter duo tracked the weather in both locations and found Reed Road’s weather was always hotter, colder, wetter, perhaps because that property had fewer trees. Heppel’s daughter Sophie was the next in line, when West bequeathed the station to her, and she “diligently” looked after it for 10 years during the evenings (she had band practice in the mornings). Then it was Heppel’s turn once again. 

Environment and Climate Change Canada’s (ECCC) Meteorological Service of Canada, the primary supplier of meteorological information in Canada, has an agreement with the Co-operative Climate Network of volunteers at 354 observation stations across the country. Those volunteers report daily temperature and/or precipitation values once or twice a day, using high quality manual sensors provided and maintained by ECCC, an Environment Canada spokesperson told Coast Reporter. 

“Sites with long, consistent records provide more valuable information because it allows clients to see trends in the data. At 61 years, Gibsons Gower Point is one of the older stations we have and provides a long track record, including minimum/maximum temperatures and rainfall/snowfall data with very few missing observations. Most of these stations are family-run, although a few are run by corporate partners such as BC Hydro and Parks Canada,” Cecelia Parsons of ECCC said in an email. And Gower Point isn’t the only volunteer-run station on the Coast — there is at least one more in Pender Harbour. 

Heppel doesn’t believe their volunteer station is the oldest or longest-running in Canada, but she doesn’t mind. “I'll keep on doing it until I drop down dead,” she said. For now, her children don’t seem interested in inheriting the task.

The data collection involves checking the minimum and maximum temperature at 8 a.m., resetting both thermometers and checking again at 6 p.m. Then she checks the rain gauge. The inner tube holds water up to 25 millimetres, then a basin catches the overflow to be measured. 

“When I say I have to get my snowboard out, it sounds really cool for a 70-year-old woman [but] it’s for measuring snow,” Heppel says.

The simple plywood board is painted white so as not to melt the snow, which is important since the snow doesn’t usually last long, she adds. It did last long last year, and was light, fluffy and dry. It was not usual for the coastal area, which normally sees snow after a cold snap. 

Over the years, her family’s set up has upgraded. They used to submit their collected data by phone. While Heppel still likes to fill in her station report by hand, she also types it into ECCC's Cooperative Observations Online (COOL) website with her observations. Someone gave West a Stevenson screen, which protects meteorological equipment and ensures more accurate readings, and Heppel was told (but could not be sure) that it was the last one made by the Kingston Penitentiary. It remains at its post in her garden, overlooking the ocean and standing among the trees planted by generations of her family since they moved from Port Mellon in 1957.

For Heppel, the task is a combination of her parents’ skills and passions. Her father Frank West was an accountant (and also helped found the Sunshine Coast Regional District), her mother a “tree hugger” passionate about nature and working for both TV and newspapers. Writing the numbers into boxes of her station register, providing a source of information about the changing environment, appeals to her family’s legacy.

“It gets under your skin,” Heppel said. “I like doing it. It's not that I find it a great burden. I like people to think it's hard work and rocket science, but it isn't really. It's just you have to be here.” 

Heppel doesn’t remember exactly what it was about the weather that made her and her family dedicate themselves to keeping track, but she says, “Canadians love the weather. And we’re now into extremes — that’s the scary part.”

Recently, May was two degrees cooler than any other May going back at least a decade, Heppel said. “That’s an awful lot.” In her garden, the berries are not nearly as big as they should be this time of year, she points out. This May wasn’t the wettest. One May several years ago, there was no rain until after midnight on May 31st, which still counts as that month for a grand total of 0.6 mL.

While November’s rains didn’t actually break records, at least those recorded by the Gibsons Gower Point Station, Heppel said, “We missed it by just a couple of millimetres.” At the end of 2021, Heppel sent a fact sheet of the Gibsons Gower Point records to Coast Reporter: 

  • Highest daily temperature:   32.5C July 11, 2007
    (This record was broken June 28, 2021 35.0C under the heat dome)
  • Lowest daily temperature:  -12.0C Feb 2,1989
  • Most rainfall in one day: 66.4 mm on October 16, 2003
    (We came close this year on Nov 14 with 63.2 mm)
  • Most snowfall in one day: 35.6 cm on Dec 26,1968
  • Most rainfall in one month: 385.0 mm Nov 1983
    (We came close this year with 376.0 mm)
  • Most snowfall in one month: 134.4 cm Dec 1964

“Environment Canada assures me that there are many people who use my data but rarely do I find out!” Heppel wrote in an email after Coast Reporter used her data reporting on the downpour of rain in October and November. “It is gratifying to know that someone out there is paying attention, so I shall keep making my observations morning & evening; daylight or dark; rain or shine!”

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