As innocuous as snow measurement might seem to normal people, it has long been a source of contentiousness and controversy in the weather community.
For example, it took federally initiated investigations to certify the 17-inch total in Washington in last January's blizzard, and the 30.7 inches reported in Philadelphia in the 1996 storm.
In the latter case, the total was estimated with a formula using the melted-liquid content of the snow with the air temperature.
Why? Because the official measuring station at Philadelphia International Airport was on top of a terminal-building roof; not the best place for measuring snow.
The National Weather Service had just installed an automated observing system at the airport. It could do just about everything but measure snow.
Finally, the weather service put out calls for a human observer, someone who lived within 3 miles of the airport. The idea was to maintain climate continuity, which is a huge deal among climatologists.
It also needed someone willing to go outside at 7 a.m., 1 p.m., 7 p.m., and 1 a.m. to take measurements whenever it snowed.
A National Park resident did it for nine winters – astute observers noticed that the posted PHL and National Park totals always were identical — and those measurements also provoked some controversy.
That relationship has ended, and Jim Bunker, chief of the weather service's observer program, said he was determined to bring the official ruler back to the airport – albeit not on a rooftop.
He shopped for airport-based companies that had 24-hour operations, and eventually landed one with employees willing to take on the job.
Bunker said he has trained about 15 of them in the art of snow-measurement: The government has a 14-page instruction manual, if you want to try this at home.
Essentially, the airport observers are to measure on a "snow board," a square white piece of wood, placed in an open area not far from the official temperature sensor.
They are to measure every six hours, clearing off the board each time, and then adding up the totals after the snow has stopped.
When winds are howling, the government recommends taking measurements near the snow board and averaging.