What’s the weather like? It’s the classic New England question and a Boston Marathon staple, posed by runners and race fans, record keepers and reporters.
But for all the seemingly precise details on heat and headwinds, and for all that the Boston Marathon annals are saturated with weather stories - 100-degree heat in 1905, snow squalls in ’67, the “Duel in the Sun’’ in ’82 - the answer has historically been imprecise, Boston Marathon spokesman Jack Fleming said.
That changes Monday when students from the state’s only undergraduate meteorology program, at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, will be stationed at key points from Hopkinton to Boston to take readings on temperature, humidity, wind speed, and wind direction and relay them in real time to the media center at the Fairmont Copley Plaza.
“We just realized we needed much deeper and more course-specific information, and [more immediate] as well,’’ said Fleming, an official with the Boston Athletic Association, which found the students through the Boston-based American Meteorological Society. “It was something that we’d had in mind for several years.’’
Traditionally, the Boston Athletic Association has used readings from National Weather Service stations around Greater Boston - but not on the course itself - and augmented them in recent years with scattered readings taken by a race official in the lead vehicle.
The precise readings gathered by the students will help broadcasters and reporters more accurately describe conditions in telling the story of the race. They could also form the basis of a body of annual data that may help organizers, coaches, and academics better understand the effects of weather on factors such as winning times and dropout rates and locations, said Fleming and Frank Colby, the UMass Lowell professor overseeing the team.
The students were eager to participate, to gain practical experience and to be part of a signature event many had watched in person or on television.
“The response has been overwhelming,’’ said Forrest Beals, a senior from Bridgewater and president of the school’s American Meteorological Society chapter; the e-mail feelers he and Crosby sent to students quickly attracted nearly 20 volunteers, including a majority of the program’s upperclassmen. “We’ll be able to get real solid data for them to analyze and look at, and we’ll be able to see the effects of the weather on the runners.’’
The students will be stationed at the start and finish as well as at the 6.2-mile mark in Framingham, the midway point in Wellesley, and the 18.6-mile mark in Newton, near Heartbreak Hill.
Using handheld instruments, they will take readings when the wheelchair and elite men’s and women’s leaders pass as well as at regular intervals, calling or radioing the data to other students at the media center. They will also note sky and ground-level conditions, such as cloud cover.
For all the students’ classroom experience measuring and analyzing weather, the real-time demands of the race pose a twist. Last Thursday, they did a practice run, taking and relaying instant readings - on an afternoon that was rainy and in the 40s. This being New England, the weather has already swung dramatically.
Given the heat, the Boston Athletic Association has offered a one-year deferral to runners who collect their bibs but elect not to start, while ramping up staffing at medical tents, encouraging all entrants to stay hydrated, and extending the finishing clock by an hour.
“The conditions . . . really can add to the story and help explain things,’’ Fleming said. “[This] will be a much more precise document of what it was like out there.’’