Monday, August 5, 2019

Eskdalemuir Observatory – Centennial celebrations

The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) has recently awarded Eskdalemuir Observatory Centennial Observing Station status. The WMO issues this status to nominated stations that have provided long-term, high-quality climate records that tell current and future generations about climate variability and trends.

Eskdalemuir Observatory today. 

Eskdalemuir Observatory is owned by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and operated by the British Geological Survey (BGS). Eskdalemuir Observatory is part of the UK Met Office official observation network and the data that it provides is available in WOW. The observatory is also part of the Global Climate Observing System(GCOS); one of only 8 observing stations in the UK incorporated into this important climate monitoring network (Stornoway, Aldergrove, Waddington, Rothamsted, Camborne, Lerwick, Eskdalemuir and Shawbury are all classed as GCOS surface network stations).

Centennial celebrations

On Thursday 18 July, nearby residents and former staff joined BGS and the Met Office to celebrate its new status and find out more about the world-leading science that takes place in the observatory’s offices and bunkers.

Stuart Goldstraw (Head of Observations Operations, Met Office) & Pete Harvey (Senior Met Officer, Eskdalemuir).

Chris Turbitt from BGS (the Observatory Manager) said, "We were pleased that members of the local community and former staff members, both BGS and Met Office, were able to join us to celebrate. The observatory opened in 1908 and since then has been a renowned site for magnetic, seismic and of course meteorological observations."

Meanwhile, Stuart Goldstraw (Head of Observations Operations at the Met Office) said, “Eskdalemuir Observatory provides meteorological data for a global network of high quality sites, as well as forming part of the Met Office Climate and Synoptic network. We are proud this partnership of over 100 years has been acknowledged with the award of WMO centennial observing station status”.

Pete Harvey & Claire Brown (Eskdalemuir Site Manager).
Visitors to Eskdalemuir were given a tour round the observatory and enjoyed a series of talks from BGS and Met Office experts.

The History of Eskdalemuir Observatory

Eskdalemuir Observatory is world-renowned as a leading geophysical and meteorological observation station. This reputation comes from the long, unbroken, high quality recordings that have been made possible by a remote site that was well chosen and has remained almost unchanged for over a century.

The main building seen from near the Underground
Magnetograph House (note the anemometer mast on the roof).

The origins of the Observatory can be traced to London in the mid-19th century when measurements of the Earth’s magnetic field began at Kew Observatory. By the end of the 19th century, these measurements had become unsustainable in London as the electrification of the capital's tram network caused increasing disturbance to the magnetic records.

By 1903, The Royal Society had identified a new site for the Kew instruments - on Nether Cassock Farm in the Parish of Eskdalemuir; a location sufficiently far enough away from existing and future sources of electrical and magnetic interference (including the national railway network). The land was provided in trust by the Duke of Buccleuch to His Majesty’s Department of Works and Public Buildings, “for an Observatory or other scientific purposes, and for no other purpose what so ever”.

Aerial view of Eskdalemuir Observatory.
The labour required to build and run the new observatory was assigned to the recently formed National Physical Laboratory, assisted by a substantial contribution from a London tram company. Many of the early magnetometers were transferred from Kew Observatory and the magnetic measurements were supplemented in the initial years by atmospheric electrical measurements and daily measurements of air temperature and pressure.

Meteorological measurements began officially in 1910 (when the Meteorological Office took over operation of the Observatory). One of the early geophysics experiments in the post-World War One years involved laying a series of large loops of copper wire around the Observatory (and nearby Dumfedling Hill) to detect geomagnetically induced currents, although a more important role of these induction loops was to evaluate the feasibility of detecting passing submarines in the vicinity of estuaries and harbours.

Seismometers were housed in the main observatory building until 1925. However, a dedicated vault was built on site in 1964 to accommodate instruments of the World-Wide Standardized Seismograph Network (and latterly BGS and US Project IDA instruments); Eskdalemuir being one of the quietest seismic stations in the world at long periods. Recordings have since been used to locate events such as the magnitude 4.7 Longtown earthquake (Boxing Day, 1979), and by air crash investigators timing the Lockerbie disaster (1988).

View of part of the Eskdalemuir enclosure, showing the entrance to the underground room where seismological & magnetic 
instruments were kept.

Management of the Observatory passed from the Meteorological Office to the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) in 1967, and by 1974, staff numbers peaked at just under 30 (due to the wide range of science being carried out on site). However, with the advent of automatic instruments and digital communications in the 1980s, staff numbers gradually decreased. Today, one BGS member of staff remains, alongside two Met Office staff members.

Main buildings at Eskdalemuir Observatory.
These buildings provided office space & accommodation for staff, including Lewis Fry Richardson
(Superintendent at Eskdalemuir, 1913 - 1916). Richardson went on to develop the theory of Numerical Weather Prediction.
The variety of geophysical measurements has, however, continued to expand. Eskdalemuir is well regarded as a pristine measuring environment, hosting continuous GNSS monitoring, magnetic induction coils, geo-electric probes, absolute gravimeters and VLF radio detection – studying physical phenomena from the core of the Earth to the ionosphere and beyond. Today, magnetic recordings are used in real-time to navigate drilling for oil and gas below the North Sea and assessing the effect of space weather events on the electricity distribution network. Although the applications have changed, the fact that the site and the measurements made there are as relevant today as they were over a century ago is a testament to those scientists who made the decision to establish an observatory at Eskdalemuir.