Before television, when Virginia Derbyshire was a child, she liked to play a game she called “radio” with her little sister.
She’d crawl into an orange crate and do an imaginary weather forecast. One day, she predicted snow, and the next day it snowed. “Well, I thought that was pretty good,” said Virginia who still carries forward her intense interest in the weather.
Now 85 and living atop Springtown Hill, Virginia checks her backyard weather station promptly at 7 a.m. daily. She records maximum/minimum temperatures, rainfall, snowfall and snow depth. She then sends her data via computer to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Weather Service Office in Mount Holly, N.J.
With the exception of one three-month stretch when she was hospitalized after a car accident she’s been doing that since October 1990. For many of those years she was also caring for her late husband who was a stroke victim.
For her dedication and service, NOAA has presented Virginia the 2021 John Campanius Holm Award for distinguished service to the nation through its Cooperative Observer Program. During a virtual ceremony in November. she received a plaque and an American flag that had flown over the U.S. Capitol.
“I was stunned, elated really. It’s pretty big,” she said of her award. She’s also been recognized by U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-1).
During a big storm, like the one last February that dumped 31.2 inches of snow on Upper Bucks, Virginia said, “I go out every four hours to do new measurements.” A widow, she lives alone and that storm found her shoveling her way to the weather station each time.
“I would measure the inches and also melt down a core sample of snow to get the water equivalent. That’s important because it tells where and how bad floods will be. All that information is sitting out there in the snow.”
Virginia said, “The weather station is in Bucks but my home is in Northampton County. The county line runs right through my back yard.” So, occasionally does a black bear. She has a photo of a big one sauntering between the weather station and her house.
The elevation at the end of her driveway is 900 feet above sea level, and Virginia said it often snows up there while the village of Springtown at the base of the hill is getting only rain. She said she has definitely noted a warming trend over the years – a very gradual one. She said, “I think most people only notice it because we have less snow.”
It’s no surprise that Virginia’s interest in science marked her as way ahead of her time. A graduate of the University of Delaware, she worked for years as a medical technologist. After that she was an adjunct professor at Northampton County Community College where she taught hematology and immunology. Even before she started collecting data for the weather service, she had been recording her own weather records on a daily basis since 1971. She later gave those early records to the National Weather Service.
The weather service’s cooperative observer program has provided scientists and researchers vital observational data for more than a century. Virginia is one of more than 10,000 volunteer observers who provide daily readings on temperature, precipitation, snowfall and other hydrological or meteorological data such as evaporation and soil temperature.
The weather service relies on these “dedicated citizen scientists to provide critical surface observations,” Louis W. Uccellini, NWS director, said in a statement. Their daily reports are “the building blocks of our forecasts each day and provide a foundation for our climate records across the nation,” he added.
Lee Robertson, observer program leader at the Mount Holly NWS office, has visited Virginia a couple times recently, and Virginia said she’s excited she’ll soon be getting new equipment. “It’s all digital and solar panels. We’re moving into the 21st century,” she said.
Virginia also thinks of herself as a naturalist, loving birds and butterflies and wildflowers.
Carole Mebus of Raubsville, who is known for her handsome bird photos, said, “Virginia is one of my birding buddies. She hikes with the birding group at Mariton Wildlife Sanctuary. She is our nature guru – when we need a butterfly identified, we ask Virginia.”