A very short history of meteorological temperature observations in Iceland

The first temperature observations were made at Bessastaðir near Reykjavík í 1749. The eighteenth century observations are fragmentary and difficult to reconcile with modern observations. It is, however being attempted. Most of the still surviving observations before 1860 were made with instruments supplied by the Danish Scientific Society and the society supported some observations until 1880. A large observational project was initiated by The Icelandic Society of Letters in 1840. An overview of the early activity is given in Jonsson and Gardarsson (2001) and a more detailed report on the 1840 effort in Jonsson and Gardarsson (2008).

Most of the early observations series only include temperature, but in a few cases there were also observations of pressure and precipitation. An attempt has been made to construct a series of annual temperatures back to 1798 and monthly values as well for most of the years. An overview is given in the supplementary material of Wood et al. (2010). A daily pressure series has been constructed back to 1822. Jones et al. (1998) summarize this effort.

The Danish Meteorological Institute (DMI) was established in 1872. It became responsible for observations in the „auxiliary countries“ (Bilandene - The Faeroes, Iceland, Greenland and the Virgin Islands). The DMI immediately established a few stations and the number of their stations grew during the next decade. After that the number of stations remained quite stable until the First World War, but only a few of the stations observed during the whole period.

The stations where divided into two main types, the so-called main stations (Hovedstationer) and climate stations (Klimastationer). The main stations were equipped with thermometers, a barometer, hygrometer, precipitation gauge and snow frame. Three temperature, pressure, wind and weather observations were made per day, the maximum and minimum temperatures were read once per day as well and the precipitation total once per day. The observations at the DMI climatic stations were more primitive. Temperature observations where made three times per day. In a few cases the climate stations were equipped with minimum thermometers.

During the DMI period wall screens were the norm and all the official stations had temperature screens. Before 1870 the use of temperature screens was an exception. In the autumn of 1906 a cable connected with the international weather service system. A few observing stations were established at telegraph stations and the observations were distributed abroad as well as inland.

These new stations made observations three or four times per day, at fixed hours but not the same as at the traditional stations. The thermometer screens were simpler and most of the barometers were of the aneroid type whereas most of the earlier stations used mercury barometers. The new telegraph meteorological stations were decisively of a lower quality than the old main stations. The DMI did not calculate means for these stations. After the Icelandic Meteorological Office took over in 1920 most of the telegraph stations remained in a lower quality state for some time.

During the First World War the contact between the DMI and the Icelandic observers seems to have deteriorated and the station turnover was not maintained. The number of climate stations dropped and more journals are missing from this period than any other after 1873. However, in other respects the transition between the operation of the DMI and IMO was relatively smooth.

The IMO gradually reinforced the network and the number of stations grew throughout the next decades (see figure below). Maximum and minimum temperature thermometers were introduced at the stations during the 1930s as well as precipitation gauges. Records of visual observations also improved. After a new international synoptic observation code was introduced in 1929 the observation emphasis shifted gradually over to the telegraphic (now synoptic) stations. The last old-style climatic stations were phased out on 1 January 2012. The number of manned synoptic stations has also been drastically reduced during the last 10 years as more automatic stations have been established.


The figure shows the approximate number of manned stations measuring temperature in Iceland during 1869 to 2010. A few early stations are excluded (hopefully added later). The drop in number during the last 15 years has been more than compensated by automatic observations.

Some references: 

Jones, P.D., T. Jónsson, and D. Wheeler, (1997) Extension to the North Atlantic Oscillation using early instrumental pressure observations from Gibraltar and South-West Iceland, International J. of Climatology Vol.17, 1433-1450.

Jónsson, T. and Hilmar Garðarsson (2001) Early Instrumental Meteorological Observations in Iceland.Climatic Change, 48, p.169-187

Jónsson T. og Hilmar G. Garðarsson (2009). Jónas Hallgrímsson og veðurathuganir á Íslandi  um og upp úr 1840. (A full English version included) Skýrsla VÍ 2009-19.

Wood, KR ,JE Overland, T Jónsson and BV Smoliak (2010), Air temperature variations on the Atlantic-Arctic boundary since 1802 GRL 37, L17708, doi:10.1029/2010GL044176, 2010

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1 identicon

Trausti,  Thank you for starting this blog in English, and for this historical summary.  How many weather stations are there with continuous, reliable records going back 100 years?  There are six in the GHCN database.  From your graph it looks like there might be as many as 20.

Paul Matthews (IP-tala skráð) 30.1.2012 kl. 10:12

2 Smámynd: Trausti Jónsson

Paul, thank you. There are 7 stations from 1881, 12 from 1898, 18 from 1921 and 26 from 1931 that I have used in a standard series that I have constructed. There are a few relocated stations in these collections. But the extra stations - observing from a few years up to decades are very useful for comparison and infillings. I will come to this later.

Trausti Jónsson, 30.1.2012 kl. 10:38

3 Smámynd: Ágúst H Bjarnason


I also thank you for this new English blog.

Best regards


Ágúst H Bjarnason, 30.1.2012 kl. 13:03

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Trausti Jónsson
Trausti Jónsson
Senior meteorologist at the Icelandic Met. Office. Speciality: Climatology
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