Maine School of Science and Mathematics instructor Mark Tasker (right) discusses with students Dylan Woneacher (left) and Lochlan O'Connor the data they collected on cities and countries with the same latitude degrees as Limestone, Feb. 7, 2023. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / BDN

LIMESTONE, Maine – Limestone students have created Aroostook County’s first school-based weather station and hope people around the world will use its wealth of data.

Students at the Maine School of Science and Mathematics traditionally learn about northern Maine winters in Mark Tasker’s 10-day “Learning to Love Winter in Limestone” class every January. By skiing, snowshoeing and building snow huts, they learn how to adapt to colder environments and better understand how to survive in the event that winter temperatures plunge even lower than normal.

This year, students took that knowledge further with a new local weather station that they hope will contribute to future climate research and public awareness.

While the National Weather Service tracks weather for Aroostook and beyond from its Caribou location, Tasker and students have created the first station that tracks a specific town’s data 24/7. The station has an online weather tracker that educators can use to teach geography of meteorology and researchers can better understand climate trends in regions similar to northern Maine.

The Penguin Station, named for the high school’s mascot, is a 6-foot monitoring system on the roof that collects data on temperatures, wind chills and speeds, humidity, dew points and the ultraviolet index. It also provides five-day weather forecasts.

Tasker constructed the station with 10th-grade students Lochlan O’Connor of Hallowell and Dylan Wombacher of Bucksport and ninth-grader Ellis Cuddy of Winterport.

During the “Learning to Love Winter” course, the students researched current weather data on cities and countries in what Tasker calls “the 47 Club.” Those are regions of the world that, like Limestone, lie at 47 degrees latitude north of the equator, including Mongolia, Budapest, Snoqualmie Pass in Washington State and Helena, Montana.

In their research, students learned how to read weather station data and understand how patterns in places similar to Limestone can aid in predicting local weather.

For example, Brenner Pass, a mountain pass in the Alps of northern Italy, started January with average temperatures — 30s on the Celsius scale, 16 degrees Fahrenheit — but temperatures plummeted later in the month, Wombacher said.

That data made Wombacher wonder how regions like Brenner Pass and Limestone would draw in winter tourists without enough snowfall.

“It got cold enough [at Brenner Pass] to make snow and go skiing later in January,” Wombacher said.

Tasker and his “Learning to Love Winter” co-instructor Debbie Eustis-Grandy purchased the Penguin Station from Ambient Weather Devices with a $565 MSSM Foundation grant. The foundation was searching for new programs that could involve many courses and departments at MSSM, Tasker said.

So far MSSM students and faculty have been the primary users of the station’s data in courses like meteorology, earth science, winter ecology, statistics and machine learning. Limestone Community School, which shares a building with the magnet school, will use the station in its outdoor learning program.

But Tasker wants to expand the Penguin Station’s reach to educators beyond Maine, including those in the “47 Club.” Educators can use Limestone’s data to compare northern Maine weather to other regions.

“We have a constant firehose of data that’s available to anyone who wants to see it,” Tasker said.

That type of hyperlocal data can be an important tool for teaching students and general enthusiasts about why weather patterns vary every day, said Patrick Maloit, lead meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Caribou.

“We’ve all seen those rain showers that are happening on one side of the street while the other side of the street looks dry,” Maloit said. “Anytime you have public local data like this available, you can see the weather’s natural variability. And you can study why the weather in Limestone might be different than in Caribou or Presque Isle.”

Data-based lessons came in handy when O’Connor and Wombacher experienced their harshest Limestone weather yet: arctic wind chills that brought the temperature down to 53.8 degrees below zero, according to the Penguin Station, during the first weekend in February.

As the students hunkered down in their dorm rooms and looked outside at the howling wind, they were glad not to need shelter in the nearly 8-foot snow hut, known as a “quinzee,” that they recently built.

But thanks to their newfound meteorology skills, they know why the hard-packed, snow-insulated quinzee would protect them from “cornices,” large and blinding winds that drift from the above hill of snow on the school’s campus.

And they know why they need not fear Aroostook winter weather again.

“After last weekend, I feel more acclimated to the cold. Now it just feels a bit chilly outside,” O’Connor said.

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Dylan Wombacher’s last name.