In peace, it is important that we observe the weather, such as floating the tires and trimming the trees. But in war, observations become secrets and weather forecasts are weapons. The desperation for them has led to expanded networks and new technologies.
The Second World War marked the beginning of a transformation of weather observation from a collection of different points to a global system – consisting of observatories on the ground, in the air and soon enough in space. But it happened piece by piece, driven by technological development and military needs.
The battle in the North Atlantic stretched from Labrador and Greenland to the west, to Svalbard and Franz Josef Land in the Barents Sea, all the way east to Novaya Zemlya, which separates Barents from Kara, north of Siberia. Throughout the Germans, it was a particular meteorological disadvantage. The Allies mainly held northern and western positions, while storms tend to move from west to east and north to south.
Before the war, remote station stations in Greenland and Iceland would make radio observations in favor of ships throughout the region. But just as the civil war broke apart the Smithsonian early observation network in the United States, World War II stopped the exchange of weather data across the North Atlantic.
The Nazi weather service, called Wetterdienst, quickly moved to compensate, sailing observation vessels up in the North Sea and into the Arctic, with a meteorologist on board to launch balloons. When the Allies began to sink the unarmed vessels, Wetterdienst turned to new technical solutions.
Siemens-Schuckertwerke Corporation – pioneer of today's Siemens conglomerate – developed an automatic weather observatory, code name kröte, or "toad" with nickel cadmium batteries and a powerful radio to transmit readings. The earliest versions were small enough to be delivered to remote locations with aircraft, but keeping them hidden and functioning was a challenge.
The first toad, which was used on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen in 1942, was quickly found and dismantled. The other, on Bear Island, had its antenna destroyed by bears. With more than 200 U-boats patrolling the North Atlantic and working to keep England's blockade, the Germans' need for weather observations became desperate.
By autumn 1943, Siemens had developed a new version of the pad with a 10 meter long antenna, powerful enough to transmit coded observations all the way from the North American coast to reception stations in Europe, but small enough to fit inside a submarine torpedo tube.
U-537, sent to install it, sailed from its concrete pen in Bergen, Norway, on the night of September 30, 1943. Its destination was a place near the current border between Labrador and Quebec – a place the captain hoped would be far enough south to be free from ice and far enough north to be free from the locals.
A photograph, discovered from the military archives in the 1970s, captures the scene at their arrival in North America: seven lakes in black knitted caps standing around two inflatables laid on the U-boat deck. Working in the autumn mist, the 10 gray containers, each large bucket weighing 200 pounds, hit the top of a nearby hill. Once they had stopped mounting the system, they handled the "Canadian meteor service" on the containers and stuck in place with American cigarette packs.
Even today, acquainted with satellite communications, solar panels and small sensors everywhere, it seems to be a sincere idea: a secret intercontinental automatic weather station, a Wetter-Funkgerät Land. Given the designation WFL-26, the remote weather station sent for less than a month prior to its transmissions was mysterious.
And then it disappeared for 40 years. An American naval team missed it in 1952 and screamed in the area of sites to install the massive lines in the DEW line, distant from the Early Warning network, built to look at Soviet long-distance bombs. A Canadian geomorphologist stumbled upon it in 1977 but assumed that it was actually what is said to be: an automated Canadian Weather Bureau.
It was only after a pensioner, Siemens employee and historian, Franz Selinger, noted the unusual landscape of the photographs that came with the U-537 logbook that someone was looking for it at all. Sailing on a Canadian icebreaker, he and a Canadian military historian finally found it in 1981, systematically vandalized, its connections cut and content flowed over the rocky ridge.
Today, "Weather Station Kurt" – as it became known, was named after its government minister, Kurt Sommermeyer – on display at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, which looks gray and ugly like many weapons. (U-537, for its part, is located at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, sunk in 1945 by the submarine USS Flounder.)
It's a wild story – an act of meteorological desperation and technological bravado calling for Hollywood. But it marks a pivot point in the history of weather observation.
For the first century of telegraph-based observation networks, the meteorologists were busy expanding their reach, occupying lighthouses, ships and airfields. The war cut the map in half. But it enabled new technological advances that gave rise to the possibility of a new expansive view of the weather.
A hundred years before the weather station Kurt telegraph was allowed for news that the weather would be transmitted faster than the weather itself. But someone must be there. (Often someone still does that on the northern island of Utsira.) Kurt was an example of a new type of station that can work itself. Soon, these observatories would not only be in remote corners of the Atlantic but high above the earth.
Another Nazi technique opened new opportunities to observe from heaven.
During the last months of the war, Wernher von Braun, the German rocket engineer, created a frightening and fatal technical hope, which successfully launched the first guided missile, known as the V-2, or "revenge weapon". It was terribly wrong, flying far next to its intended targets but still killing 9,000 people in London, Antwerp and Liège.
After the war, the United States and the Soviet Union famously distorted the gathering of the remaining rockets and the scientists who designed them and von Braun were taken to the United States. During the early days of the Cold War, their priority was to adapt the V-2 for continued military use – and its design would actually serve as the basis for both Soviet and American rockets eventually to accommodate nuclear weapons and astronauts to space. But first, they would be used to observe the weather.
In October 1946, technicians at White Sands Proving Ground in Nevada installed a camera in the nose of a captured V-2 and launched it straight up into the sky. Within 30 seconds, the rocket disappeared from the view. But then it started looking back, its 35mm camera snapping photographs every two and a half and up to a height of 83 miles before crashing into the desert. A search plane found the wreck and recovered the film, protected in a cylindrical steel cassette diameter on a food plate.
"A truly dramatic spectacle developed as the film evolved," reminded the camera's designer Clyde T. Holliday. "On these photographs we saw what a passenger on a V-2 would see if he could stay on zooming up to that height and back again, and how our earth would look to visitors from another planet who entered a spaceship. "
It was an idea that had previously been imagined, but its practical advantages were unambiguous. This first visit by a camera to the margins provided space for photographs of a quarter of the United States, an area of nearly one million square miles. Earth's curvature was visible, along with cloud bands stretching hundreds of miles in rows as streets.
The meteorologists were immediately excited by the possibilities. The director of the Weather Agency, Francis Reichelderfer, wanted photos of the camera's designers at Applied Physics Lab at Johns Hopkins University to be shared with each weather office in the country, "so our forecasters can get an insight into what can be transformed into a potent weather forecast tool in the future . "
Excerpts from The Weather Machine by Andrew Blum © 2019. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.