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Weather watcher weirdness

Published Oct. 1, 2005

I listened closely for cello music as I approached the mysterious site in what would be no-man's land if there is ever a civil war between Pasco and Hernando counties.

Strange things, I had been warned, happened there.

Instruments malfunctioned, and extreme temperature differences _ often associated with the supernatural _ were noted. Strange animal cries were often heard in the night, and the word was that the woman who lived there kept some really big snakes on her kitchen counter.

"Hi, come on in," said Oonagh Guenkel, greeting me with a handshake after I read the sign welcoming "those who investigate the people who investigate the weather."

In case you recognized the name, Guenkel is the first woman ever to run for sheriff in Pasco County. I supported her candidacy solely because I thought it would be neat if she and a guy named Hootie, who was running in Citrus County, got elected and I could say their names a lot.

She's taken (and given) her share of political heat and cold shoulders, but my interest in her now was strictly meteorological.

The question was simple.

Why are the temperature readings at Guenkel's home (technically in Spring Hill, although it is actually just south of the Pasco-Hernando county line and Guenkel prefers to call it Shady Hills) almost always 5 to 8 degrees higher than the surrounding areas and sometimes higher than Death Valley?

The answer? Nobody knows.

One thermometer went bad there and was replaced. The new one was checked out in person by Darrell Cutshall, who oversees the Times weather watchers everywhere, and is properly situated and in working order.

Unless weather is your hobby, being a weather watcher is a thankless task. The people who do it for us don't get any compensation other than their enjoyment. I used to have to operate the New Port Richey station on weekends and found it to be a pain in the neck.

And, believe me, when you are watching, a lot of other people are watching you. Our Hernando County editor was besieged with letters and calls demanding to know what was up when their thermometers were drastically different than ours.

One anonymous letter writer pointed out that Ocala got credit for the nation's extreme high (apparently an error since the actual temperature was lower that day) when Spring Hill's was listed as 1 degree higher.

"Why didn't we get the recognition?" asked the letter writer, sweating proudly, one assumes. Cutshall said he also fields more calls _ a lot of them _ challenging the Spring Hill reading than those from anywhere else in the world.

"At one point they thought it was because the children were calling it in," said Bob Guenkel, Oonagh's husband, who came up with the idea of getting the couple's three children involved as an educational venture, "but we haven't noticed any difference when we do it."

The Guenkel home, which does, by the way, have a large menagerie of horses, cats, snakes, lizards, dogs, birds and rabbits inside and outside, also was distinguished one night last winter as being the coldest place in the area _ 32 degrees, compared with 45 in Hernando Beach. It was also the only place to report frost.

I called an expert, James Elsner, a meteorology professor at Florida State University.

Elsner said that pockets of low temperatures are more common than high because lows occur during the night when there is less wind "to mix things up." Highs, he said, occur during the day, and even though they might peak at times, usually don't stay high long enough to activate thermometers like ours that lock in the high temperature.

"I would be suspicious of that thermometer," said Elsner.

Guenkel, who is in semiretirement for now, said she would be glad to install another one or to do whatever else she and her family are asked.

"I don't think we're the Bermuda Triangle of weather or anything like that" she said.


That's what they want you to think.