Oddvar Selseng
Foto: Astrid Rommetveit / NRK

Oddvar has devoted his life to the rain

But the weather observer never thought he’d influence the world’s most powerful people.

Translated by Erik Grønvold. Originally published 29.11.2015.

Sogn, 1 October 2015: You can almost see the trail in the tarmac where Oddvar Selseng (87) has walked from his house to the rain gauge on the other side of the road. Because he follows this path every day, just like his father and grandfather before him.

The gauge was set up on the farm in 1895, and today it’s being emptied for the 43,992th time.

It’s still dark, and Oddvar has to climb a pile of mossy rocks to reach the top of the rain gauge. He shakes a fly out of the measuring cup, empties the rain from the last 24 hours and makes the reading: only 1.5 mm. The low-lying clouds in the valley have yet to release their drops.

As a weather observer, Oddvar is one of several thousand people worldwide who gather the pieces that make up the huge climate puzzle. Without them, scientists would never have discovered that the climate is changing. Without them, the world’s most powerful politicians wouldn’t have gathered at the Climate Summit in Paris in December to change the way the whole world works.

From a farm in Western Norway, Oddvar has helped influence the history of the world. But how has the job as weather observer affected his life? What has he sacrificed? Why does he do it?

For Oddvar, it’s never been about climate.

The day Oddvar made the commitment

Oddvar Selseng måler nedbør, står på steinrøys

DANGEROUS EXERCISE: Oddvar knows he probably should build a proper ladder to reach the gauge.

Foto: Astrid Rommetveit / NRK

Oddvar’s part in the story started one cold and dark morning in the fall of 1967. He looked out the window, and saw his father collapsed by the rain gauge. The 87-year-old had tried his best, but his legs would no longer carry him. He’d been a weather observer since 1924, but now it was over.

Oddvar rushed outside, helped his father to his feet and got him back in the house. Then he went back out and did what he had to do: Take the measurement.

There was no doubt in Oddvar’s mind that he would continue the tradition, but that day remains nailed in his memory. From then on, the rain gauge remained a permanent fixture in his life; at the same time, the same place, every day, all year round.

In autumn 2015, Oddvar is as old as his father was when he collapsed. But his legs are sturdy and strong on the rocks, and his mind is clear.

– I’ll go on as I’ve always done until I fall over, he laughs, and returns to the old farmhouse. It’s almost eight in the morning, and Oddvar has something he needs to do.

As long as I don’t mix up the numbers, I’ll manage to keep going for a few more years.

Oddvar Selseng / Oddvar Selseng
Selseng gård

SELSENG FARM: The farmhouse is on the left side of the road, while the rain gauge is barely visible on the right side. Oddvar has built the white house to the right, hoping one of his children will take over the farm and the weather station.

Foto: Astrid Rommetveit / NRK

World-class continuity

Selseng farm is 20 km outside Sogndal. The place used to be known as “The end of the world” before the highway brought new life to the valley. The Selseng family has tended the measuring station for 120 years, resulting in one of the longest, most continuous streams of weather data in Norway.

Oddvar takes off his shoes and places them neatly in the hall before hurrying into the living room, where he keeps the computer he got four years ago when the Institute of Meteorology stopped accepting measurements via ordinary mail. Rumour has it that Oddvar, afraid of losing his job as weather observer, decided he had no choice but to go digital.

Oddvar Selseng foran datamaskinen

EIGHT IN THE MORNING: Oddvar tries to register the precipitation at the same time every day.

Foto: Astrid Rommetveit / NRK

At eight in the morning, he enters “1.5 mm” into the computer, and the number is added to the long row of previous measurements with millimetre precision.

There are about 70 measuring stations in Norway that have kept it going as long as Selseng. But there’s still something unique about this station.

For one thing, the rain gauge at Selseng has barely been moved, only a few metres up the hill to give room for ever bigger snowploughs and snowbanks. If Oddvar’s numbers show that the climate has changed in any way, there’s no other explanation than precisely that: Climate and weather.

Secondly, there isn’t a single gap in Oddvar’s measurements. In other words: The Selseng family hasn’t shirked once since 1895.

Data sequences like this one don’t grow on trees.

The price to pay

I’m underpaid. I’m not doing it for the money.

Oddvar Selseng / Oddvar Selseng

Two wall clocks are both trying to tick the loudest. Is one of them running slightly ahead of the other? While Oddvar sits by the computer, his wife Anna (87) is preparing lunch in the kitchen. They always eat exactly at noon.

Together they’ve raised three children in a rural environment, close to livestock, nature and weather. But they haven’t had many vacations.

Oddvar can only recall one trip abroad, and a handful of journeys to Northern Norway. His son filled in as weather observer.

– We’re not as restless as others who are free to travel. Maybe they get bit by the bug, so they have to go abroad? When I’m shopping in town, I only want to get back home as soon as possible, Oddvar says with a laugh.

Has he sacrificed himself to his work as weather observer?

– No, there’s not much to sacrifice, Oddvar replies, before Anna steps in from the sidelines.

– It’s been an obstacle.

– Yes, I suppose it has. But we’re still together, and now we’ve put down roots here, says Oddvar. More laughter.

– But it’s still limited us, Anna repeats.

Selseng gård 1939

1939: The observer had to climb up the rock pile to empty the rain bucket. Here Oddvar’s father and sister pose in front of the rain gauge.

Foto: Privat

A worldwide effort

Even though Oddvar is alone when he carries out his morning measurements, he’s still in good company. In many ways, he’s more of a world citizen than some of us.

Because at exactly eight in the morning, a whole armada of «Oddvars» go out to do the same thing. 6800 weather observers span the globe and make sure that we can retell the story of the weather, day by day, place by place, to the future as well.

This enormous global effort has been ongoing for over a century, and it can hardly be called anything but voluntary. As of now, Oddvar gets an annual salary of NOK 15,000 (€ 1600) from the Institute of Meteorology.

– I’m underpaid. I’m not doing it for the money, he says, checking the computer to verify that today’s measurement has been registered correctly.

Now Oddvar’s data embark on a long and exciting journey: First they rush over to the Institute of Meteorology for quality control. Other fresh weather measurements from Norway also arrive, and together they set course for the Netherlands and another round of quality controls. There they team up with data from the rest of Europe before continuing to major global players like WMO, NASA and NOAA.

At every step of the way, scientists are standing by to retrieve data and make calculations. When the UN climate change panel, the IPCC, described the climate changes in their most recent assessment report in 2014, they were founded on observations made by Oddvar and other weather observers, and this report formed the scientific basis for all the discussions at the Climate Change Conference in Paris.

Oddvar Selseng kjenner på været

FEELS THE WEATHER: Oddvar measures the rainfall every morning, but keeps track of the weather throughout the day. Right now, there’s a slight drizzle, which will be reported next morning.

Foto: Astrid Rommetveit / NRK

Norway needed to catch up

While Anna makes lunch, Oddvar goes out to work on the farm. Huge snowfalls last winter have pushed the fence posts into the ground, and now Oddvar has to pull them up again.

Suddenly he stops, stretches out a hand and tests the weather with his fingers. There’s a slight drizzle in the air.

Oddvar Selseng arbeider ute

IN GOOD SHAPE: Oddvar Selseng runs at full speed through the grass. It’s so wet you can hear his boots gurgle.

Foto: Astrid Rommetveit / NRK

A weather observer of Oddvar’s calibre works 24/7. He keeps an eye on the rain all day, when it arrives and in what form, then enters everything into the computer the next morning.

He says he could tell that the weather had turned wetter already in the 1960s, but scientists were focusing on other things at the time.

When Oddvar’s grandfather started as a weather observer more than a century ago, the authorities weren’t interested in weather changes. Their aim was to map Norwegian precipitation patterns to determine which areas were most suitable for hydroelectric development.

During World War II, weather forecasting was illegal in Norway. But based on millions of weather observations, the meteorologists instead worked on statistics about climate change in Norway, becoming frontrunners in one of the world’s largest research projects. When peace returned, they went back to forecasting. In Norway, climate change was no longer a priority, but internationally, climate research was gaining momentum.

It was only in the late 1990s that we once again started to investigate climate change in Norway, and today scientists are unequivocal: Increasing rainfall is the greatest weather-related threat in Norway as a result of man-made climate change. It’s thanks to people like Oddvar that they know this for certain. But even though he’s collected the world’s most tangible evidence of climate change, he’s highly sceptical to how these changes are interpreted.

Selseng gård

THE SAME HOUSE: The farmhouse is over a century old, just like the rain gauge.

Foto: MET

– I'm sceptical

Oddvar settles into his favourite chair, a recliner in the middle of the living room. When he turns to the right, he can look out the window and down the valley, to clouds, sun and rain.

Oddvar Selseng i stolen

KEEPING WATCH: From his recliner in the living room, Oddvar keeps track of the weather, the world and his wife, Anna.

Foto: Astrid Rommetveit / NRK

– I monitor the weather from here.

If he turns to the left, he’s got a view of the kitchen, Anna’s domain. But right now the chair is facing the TV and the pile of newspapers.

Oddvar keeps track of the news, and knows that December will be an important month. World leaders will gather in Paris to decide on emissions reductions and changes in lifestyle that could affect the entire planet.

– I don't think they'll reach an agreement. They won’t get China on board. Or Russia. Well, maybe. I don’t know.

Two editions of Science Illustrated are thumped down on the table. – Humans aren’t the main reason for climate change, Oddvar says.

– I read a bit too much to believe just anything. We have to remember that there always have been periods with warm, cold and wet years. This is way beyond our control. There are greater forces in play. So I’m sceptical.

– Do you find it annoying that your data is used in this way?

– No, it doesn’t bother me. It takes more to ruffle my feathers, says Oddvar. And it’s not because of the climate that he’s devoted to this job.

Målinger gjort på Selseng

ODDVAR’S EVIDENCE: These are the annual measurements dating back to 1895. The trend shows an increasingly wet climate, even though the annual variations are huge.

Foto: MET

Deep roots

Kongens fortjenestemedalje Per Olav Selseng

HERITAGE: Oddvar’s father received the King’s Medal of Merit for his efforts as a weather observer.

Foto: Astrid Rommetveit / NRK

Oddvar has become an important witness in the valley. If there’s a car accident, he’s the one who can tell the insurance company how the weather was the day it happened. If a cabin roof caves in under the snow, Oddvar knows how much the snow on the roof weighed.

– Weather observers in general enjoy a lot of respect. They’re often regarded as people of authority in the local community, says Ted Torfoss, who coordinates Norwegian weather observers, and is writing a book on the subject.

For Oddvar, the job helps structure his everyday life. It gets him out of bed in the morning. But that’s not the most important thing.

Every day when he retrieves the sample, he sees the sign on the weather station: «Precipitation has been measured here since 1895». And he knows that this is so much more than just a job. The rain gauge is there, firmly planted on the farm, just like Oddvar himself. With deep roots.

– I’m bound by tradition. I think that jumping from one thing to the other is too easy. It doesn’t seem serious. I think there’s greater solidity in upholding tradition. It’s in my blood.

But upholding the tradition may prove difficult. Oddvar’s row of data may be broken.

– Weather observers are a dying breed, says Ted Torfoss. He sees how more and more Norwegian weather stations are disappearing when the observers retire. Nobody’s interested in taking over jobs like these anymore. Some of the observers are replaced by automatic weather stations, but by no means all. Automatic weather stations are too expensive.

And Oddvar is uneasy when he thinks about the future. Because who will take over the day he’s no longer there?

Anna Selseng

SECRET DIARY: Every evening, Anna jots down keywords about the weather and other events.

Foto: Astrid Rommetveit / NRK

What will the future bring?

Anna fetches a diary from the top of the kitchen cupboard, sits down at the table and jots down the temperature and a few keywords about today’s events. She does this every evening. Even though Oddvar’s meteorological work has been a limitation, the weather has also been an important cornerstone in her life.

Her eyesight is failing, and Anna finds it increasingly difficult to complete her daily chores. Maybe her health will decide how long they can go on living here?

On the other side of the road, Anna can make out the house Oddvar has built in the hope that one of their children will take over the farm and the weather station. None of their children have ever lived there, and right now, it’s been leased to a group of Lithuanian labourers.

Maybe we’ll have to skip a generation to find Oddvar’s heir? A grandchild who lives with his family in Bergen and works as a realtor has a particularly close relationship to the farm, Oddvar says.

– I assume he wants to live here. But his grandmother doesn’t think so.

– A new horse might attract the animal-loving city dwellers to Selseng, he says in the end, though he knows that time, weather and the world is about to outpace him.

– A weather station certainly isn’t much of an attraction any more.

With thanks to:

  • The Institute of Meteorology by Stein Kristiansen, Jostein Mamen, Reidun Gangstø, Hans Olav Hygen and Ted Torfoss.
  • Yngve Nilsen, historian, University of Bergen
  • Magnus Vollset, historian, University of Bergen
  • The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) by Etienne Charpentier and Mohan Abayasekara