Weather Radio: all weather, all the time

Weather RadioThe U.S. Weather bureau signs on radio station KWO35, located at New York’s La Guardia Airport, broadcasting weather forecasts primarily for the benefit of pilots. Not targeted for public consumption, the experimental station broadcasts for several hours a day at a frequency of 162.55Mhz, outside of the spectrum reserved for FM radio. A similar station on the same frequency will later sign on at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport in 1953, again mainly for the consumption of airline pilots. Marine forecasts are added later, and the system helps the Weather Bureau prevent its local forecasters from being overwhelmed by requests for “personalized” weather reports for pilots. These two stations are the precursor for the nationwide weather radio network operated by the Weather Bureau’s successor agency, the National Weather Service.

Weather Bulletin!

Weather BulletinThe U.S. Weather Bureau (forerunner of the National Weather Service) inaugurates the Severe Weather Unit at the WBAN (Weather Bureau-Army-Navy) Analysis Center in Washington D.C. Armed with recent research and decades of past research into the formation and behavior of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes, this is the first attempt to offer the military’s growing severe weather prediction capability to the American public. In these early days, before the adoption of specific types of weather watches, the WBAN Severe Weather Unit issues weather bulletins for tornadoes and severe thunderstorms alike; by early 1953, the Severe Weather Unit also issues “outlooks” with more general predictions about the probability of severe storms.

Baptism by fire…and wind

Weather BulletinThe newly formed Weather Bureau-Army-Navy Severe Weather Unit hits the ground running with its first tornado bulletin issued to the general public for portions of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana. This forerunner of the modern tornado watch is a misfire, however: the only two confirmed tornadoes occur, both outside the area covered in the bulletin. Critics within the Weather Bureau express doubt that such bulletins will ever be of use to the public, and may instead spark panic among the public; this attitude will all but disappear within three years.

Tornado Bulletin #2

Weather BulletinThe newly formed Weather Bureau-Army-Navy Severe Weather Unit‘s second attempt to warn the public that tornado formation is possible within a specific area strikes paydirt. Again covering a large area including portions of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana, later expanded to include states east of this area, this forerunner of modern tornado watches is right on the money, predicting an outbreak of more than 20 tornadoes in Arkansas, Missouri, Mississippi and Kentucky. Despite the advance notification, the Severe Weather Unit has work to do in educating the public about its bulletins: over 200 deaths still occur as a result of the tornadoes.

Hook echo: first tornado detected by radar

Weather BulletinUsing a World War II-era aviation radar system, Illinois State Water Survey electrical engineer Donald Staggs makes the first radar-based detection of a nearby tornado, part of a tornado outbreak striking in and near Champaign, Illinois. The “hook echo” is the distinctive radar signature of a rapidly evolving small-scale cyclone developing from the larger radar signature of its parent thunderstorm. Continued observations confirm that this is the “radar shape” of a forming tornado, an invaluable piece of information for forecasters on the forefront of severe weather prediction.

The Severe Local Storms Warning Service

Weather BulletinFormerly the Weather Bureau-Army-Navy Severe Weather Unit, the recently-renamed Severe Local Storms Warning Service (SELS) relocates from Washington D.C. to Kansas City, Missouri. The new location puts the SELS closer to the American midwest, a hotbed of severe weather during the spring months, as well as placing it in close proximity to a major telecommunications hub (at this point, the SELS is reliant almost entirely on teletype transmissions). Additionally, precise definitions of what constitutes a severe thunderstorm (winds in excess of 50mph, wind gusts in excess of 75mph, and hail in excess of an inch in diameter) are established, as well as a concerted effort to target its weather bulletins to more precise geographic regions.

Doppler weather radar

Doppler RadarThe U.S. Weather Bureau uses a mobile Doppler radar transmitting and receiving in the 3cm bandwidth to measure wind speeds in a tornado striking El Dorado, Kansas, which kills 13 people living in that city. With Doppler radar’s ability to detect and measure the velocity of wind and rain moving toward and away from the radar itself, it is ideally suited for tornado observations and detection. This mobile radar is later given to the Bureau’s National Severe Storms Laboratory in the 1960s, and is the beginning of a lengthy research program that culminates in the nationwide rollout of Doppler-based NEXRAD (Next Generation Radar) in the 1990s.

Weather radar, pre-Doppler

WRS-57 consoleThe U.S. Weather Bureau installs the first WSR-57 weather radar in what in intended to eventually be a network of weather radars spanning the entire country. Derived from World War II radars, the WSR-57 is first installed at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida, where it offers as much as two days’ advance notice of storms approaching the Florida coast in the years before weather satellites. This radar remains in service until 1992, when it is literally ripped off the NHC’s roof by the winds of Hurricane Andrew. It is later replaced by a WSR-88 NEXRAD radar, though by that time satellite imagery has become the primary means of remotely detecting major tropical weather events.


TIROSNASA and the United States Weather Bureau launch the third experimental TIROS weather satellite, TIROS-3. Further refinements to the basic TIROS satellite system are made, but one of the satellite’s two television cameras fails within days of going into service. TIROS-3 proves the future life-saving potential of weather satellites by giving Earthbound meteorologists advance warning of the formation and strengthening of Hurricane Esther well before it makes landfall on the east coast of the United States. TIROS-3 is operational for less than a year.


TIROSNASA and the United States Weather Bureau launch the fourth experimental TIROS weather satellite, TIROS-4. Further refinements to the basic TIROS satellite system are made, and after TIROS-3’s discovery of a hurricane in the Atlantic well before it his the US, new enhancements are introduced specifically for early hurricane detection. TIROS-4 remains in orbit for less than six months.


TIROSNASA and the United States Weather Bureau launch the fifth experimental TIROS weather satellite, TIROS-5. Further refinements to the basic TIROS satellite system are made, including new systems designed to keep the satellite in orbit – and in service – for a much longer period of time. A problem with the Delta rocket used to launch TIROS-5 puts the satellite in an elliptical orbit which is maintained for less than six months.


TIROSNASA and the United States Weather Bureau launch the sixth experimental TIROS weather satellite, TIROS-6. Launched specifically to allow for better detection of storms during the 1962 Atlantic hurricane season, TIROS-6 has a full workload within days of launch as Hurricane Daisy forms in the Caribbean Sea and makes its way to New England. TIROS-6 finally provides a successful test for NASA’s attempts to keep a weather satellite in service for long-duration missions, lasting over a year in orbit.


TIROSNASA and the United States Weather Bureau launch the seventh experimental TIROS weather satellite, TIROS-7. In addition to observing weather on Earth, TIROS-7 carries instruments to measure electron activity in Earth’s vicinity and to measure the temperature of space. Enhancements designed to extend the satellite’s life prove to be wildly successful: TIROS-7 is the longest-lived of the experimental TIROS series, remaining in service for five years (and, critically, five hurricane seasons).


TIROSNASA and the United States Weather Bureau launch the eighth experimental TIROS weather satellite, TIROS-8. With TIROS-7 still fully operational, TIROS-8 expands coverage of Earth’s weather (including early detection and tracking of Hurricane Betsy, the first hurricane in American history to cause over $1,000,000,000 in damage) and tests new technology, including a high resolution, slow-scan imaging system. TIROS-8 is the second longest-lived of the early experimental TIROS satellites, remaining in service for three and a half years.

The National Severe Storms Laboratory

NSSLTo further research into the formation and evolution of severe weather in the midwestern United States, the U.S. Weather Bureau establishes the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Oklahoma. Operating in close cooperation with the University of Oklahoma’s meteorology department and the Severe Local Storms Warning Service in Kansas City, the NSSL focuses on improving prediction and detection of destructive weather, including tornadoes, quickly fixating upon the potential of Doppler radar.


NimbusNASA and the United States Weather Bureau launch the first test article of the next-generation weather satellite, Nimbus-1. Using the more advanced camera technology (including infrared filters to watch cloud motion even on Earth’s night side) tested aboard TIROS-8, Nimbus-1 provides a vast improvement on satellite weather observations over the hardware on the TIROS experimental satellites. The first Nimbus satellite remains in service for only a month; later Nimbus satellites continue to be launched into service well into the late 1970s, and most of them remain operational into the 1980s.


TIROSNASA and the United States Weather Bureau launch the ninth experimental TIROS weather satellite, TIROS-9. Heavier than any of the other TIROS experimental satellites, and with cameras mounted on opposite sides of the satellite’s cylindrical body to keep the Earth in view at all times. The result, in February, is the first-ever snapshot of the entire world’s weather patterns within a single day. TIROS-9 also carries other upgrades being considered for an upcoming fleet of full-time operational weather satellites, and remains in service for three and a half years.

Palm Sunday Tornado Outbreak

1965 Palm Sunday tornado outbreakOn the 45th anniversary of a similar severe weather event, a major outbreak of violent tornadoes strikes the northern midwest, causing 271 deaths and over a thousand injuries in Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio, and Michigan; 137 of the deaths occur in Indiana alone. With weather radar still in its infant state, a radio station in Cedar Rapids spots the first storm on its own radar, while nearby National Weather Service offices do not have radar yet. The U.S. Weather Bureau’s confusing system of “tornado forecasts” and “tornado alerts” is changed to more clearly delineated “watches” and “warnings” after this event.


TIROSNASA and the United States Weather Bureau launch the tenth and final experimental TIROS weather satellite, TIROS-10. Continuing to test technological upgrades for a fully-functional weather satellite fleet, TIROS-10 also provides additional coverage during hurricane seasons, and remains operational for exactly two years, at which point NASA begins a planned shutdown and phase-out of the experimental TIROS satellites in favor of the Nimbus and ESSA weather satellites.


ESSAAs part of a reorganization of agencies within the U.S. government in 1965, the country’s Weather Bureau becomes part of ESSA, the Environmental Science Services Administration, and is placed under the Department of Commerce. All weather prediction and analysis is now under the jurisdiction of ESSA, including a growing fleet of weather satellites operated jointly by ESSA and NASA. The agency will be renamed the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration in 1970.

ESSA-1: Operational TIROS

ESSAThe recently-rechristened Environmental Sciences Service Administration (previously the U.S. Weather Bureau) launches, with the help of NASA, the first “Operational TIROS” weather satellite, ESSA-1. Based on the architecture of the later TIROS satellites, this is intended to be the first fully-operational, long-life weather satellite, in the tradition of many of the long-lived TIROS weather satellites. But eight months into its operational lifetime, ESSA-1’s on board camera system fails, rendering it blind – it becomes useless as a weather satellite and is kept online for engineering experiments until spring 1967.

ESSA-2 launched

ESSAThe recently-rechristened Environmental Sciences Service Administration (previously the U.S. Weather Bureau) launches, with the help of NASA, weather satellite ESSA-2, intended to be the second in a constellation of spaceborne observers of Earth’s weather. Virtually identical to ESSA-1, ESSA-2 monitors Earth’s cloud cover for over four years; it is decommissioned in 1970, not because it stops working, but because a newer satellite utilizes the same telemetry frequency.


ESSAThe recently-rechristened Environmental Sciences Service Administration (previously the U.S. Weather Bureau) launches, with the help of NASA, weather satellite ESSA-3, the third in a constellation of Earth-observing weather satellites. The timing of the launch is fortunate, as ESSA-3 takes up its station in orbit mere days before the unexpected shutdown of ESSA-1’s camera system. ESSA-3’s own camera system begins to fail in less than a year, and it is deactivated near the end of 1968 due to continued system failures.

Weather Radio expands

Weather RadioThe U.S. Weather Bureau announces plans to expand its Weather Radio service across the country, with forecasts now prepared and worded for public consumption (as opposed to the service’s original 1950s mission of providing weather information for airline pilots). Concentrated primarily in coastal areas and a handful of inland population centers, the Weather Radio network has yet to become the Bureau’s primary means of disseminating emergency weather information, a mission it won’t take on until the 1970s.


ESSAThe recently-rechristened Environmental Sciences Service Administration launches, with the help of NASA, ESSA-7, the latest in a constellation of weather satellites operated by the former U.S. Weather Bureau. Like many of the other ESSA satellites, technical problems plague ESSA-7, and its camera system fails within a year. Engineering tests are carried out with ESSA-7 after it goes blind until the satellite is shut down early in 1970.

Nimbus 3

NimbusNASA launches the Nimbus 3 satellite, designed to observe weather patterns from orbit and test new weather and climate detection technologies. Nimbus 3 is the first Earth-orbiting spacecraft to test the SNAP-19 radioisotope thermoelectric generator system; devices similar to the SNAP-19 will become the primary power source for later deep space and outer solar system interplanetary missions. Nimbus 3 loses attitude control in 1970, but is kept online for engineering information-gathering purposes until 1972.


ESSANASA and ESSA launch the ITOS satellite, also known as TIROS-M, a next-generation weather satellite intended to take over from the constellation of short-lived ESSA weather satellites. With a configuration that is, for the first time, significantly different from the TIROS/ESSA satellites, the TIROS-M design’s shakedown cruise is a short and bumpy one: after system failures force a shutdown of the satellite’s attitude control system, it is shut down in mid-1971.

Nimbus 4

NimbusNASA launches the Nimbus 4 satellite, designed to observe weather patterns from orbit and test new weather and climate detection technologies. Nimbus 4 is among the first satellites to test what will become known as global positioning system technology, capable of pinpointing ground-based targets with special equipment. The satellite begins to experience intermittent attitude control problems in 1971, but remains in at least partial service through 1980.


NOAAThe United States government reorganizes ESSA (the Environment Science Services Administration) into NOAA or the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, an agency responsible for weather prediction and research and for functions involving oceanic conditions, coastal fisheries, and then-current investigations of a potential Alaskan oil pipeline.


NOAA / ESSA satellite seriesNASA and the newly-rechristened National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (formerly ESSA) launch NOAA-1, a weather satellite intended to operate in a near-polar low Earth orbit. Equipped with four cameras, NOAA-1 will operate in orbit for nearly a year before it begins suffering equipment malfunctions. Overheating in the spacecraft’s attitude control system forces ground controllers to turn off some of its weather sensing equipment, and NOAA-1 will eventually be shut down in August 1971.

The dawn of Doppler radar

NSSL Doppler RadarThe National Severe Storms Laboratory‘s 10cm Doppler weather radar begins full-time experimental operation in Norman, Oklahoma, just in time for the region’s active severe weather season. A surplus Air Force radar left over from the Distant Early Warning radar network (also known as the DEW Line) is installed and housed in a facility that’s also made of military surplus parts. There is no real-time display at first: researchers and meteorologists store the Doppler radar’s observations on computer tape that has to be processed and printed months after the fact, and compared to archived records from the existing WSR-57 radar at Norman.

The voice of the National Weather Service

Weather RadioThe National Weather Service’s NOAA Weather Radio system finally finds its purpose with the introduction of a piercing “warning tone” preceding emergency weather announcements such as severe weather warnings. Manufacturers of weather radio receivers (an item which hit the market in 1970) use the five-second burst of 1050Hz warning tone to trigger attention-grabbing alert sounds and then activate the radio so the relevant information can be heard. NOAA Weather Radio broadcasts on 29 stations around the country, and the agency continues to bring new transmitters online throughout the year.