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History of the NWS in the Twin Cities
At the MSP Airport

Wold-Chamberlain Field & MSP International (1938-1995)

Wold-Chamberlin Field in 1940
The Administration Building and Passenger Terminal at Wold-Chamberlain Field in 1940, on the grounds of the present day Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society, Photograph Collection)

The creation of a Weather Bureau office at the Wold-Chamberlain Field Administration Building (on the grounds of the present day site of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport) was a sign of the growing weather information needs of the avaiation community. The airport Weather Bureau office which opened in 1934 was located on the 3rd floor of the administration building and was eventually co-located with air traffic control operations. Several weather instruments including temperature, humidity, wind, and cloud height sensors were placed on the roof of the structure.

Taking Weather Observation on Roof of Administration Building Looking at Celometer on Roof of Admnistration Building
Weather instruments on the roof of the Wold-Chamberlain Field Administration Building around 1945 (Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society, Photograph Collection). Left photo: Ms. Lucille Sjostrom checking temperature and dew point sensors in the white shelter and the rain gage at far right while planes are taking off. Right photo: Ms. Sjostrom calculating cloud heights by using the rooftop celometer. Before the celometer was installed in 1945, cloud heights had to be determined by launching weather balloons.

The site of the official weather observation was transferred from the downtown Minneapolis office to the Wold-Chamberlain Field Weather Bureau office at 1 PM on April 9, 1938. To the present day the offical weather observation for Minneapolis has been taken within a two thousand feet of this location. The most significant change to the observation program at this location was a switch from manual weather reports to automated weather sensor reports on June 1, 1996. Click here for more information about the Automated Surface Observing System (ASOS).

During World War II, many men left their workplaces to serve their country in the armed forces and the Weather Bureau needed to hire staff to fill vacant positions. In the 1940s, several women joined the organization as weather observers. Nationwide, over 900 women worked for the Weather Bureau by 1945. During the war years security at the airport Weather Bureau was tight. According to observer Mrs. Lucille Sjostrom Nicholson, "Weather reports were restricted data during the war. There was a chain and lock across the entrance to the weather bureau, intended to keep unathorized people from coming in to see the maps or weather reports. All hourly reports of weather from around the country were put in a locked chest when replaced by newer reports and the old material [was] periodically taken down to be burned."

Drawing Weather Maps at Minneapolis Airport Office
Mr. James Mack and Ms. Lucille Sjostrom draw weather maps in December of 1946 after plotting weather observations received by teletype. Weather maps were drawn every 6 hours. (Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society, Photograph Collection)

Technology changed significantly while the airport office was in operation. When the office opened its doors in the 1930s, weather maps were drawn by hand and teletype machines were used to transmit weather observations. Most people received weather forecasts by radio and newspaper. Interestingly enough, between October 7, 1949 and November 25, 1982 the National Weather Service also relayed weather forecasts to the public by "weatherball". In 1949, Northwestern Bank of Minneapolis erected a tower topped with a large ball on the roof of their building at 600 Marquette Ave. This ball was illuminated by neon tubes, and the color of the ball and whether the ball was blinking or not illustrated the forecast for the next day.

In the 1950s and 1960s the Weather Bureau called the bank with the latest forecast and their staff programed the ball. In the 1970s and early 1980s the staff of the airport office controlled the ball via keypad and verified the ball's characteristics by using binoculars. The Weatherball remained in operation until a fire on Thanksgiving Day damaged the bank building. By the early 1980s, televison and radio had become the major distributor of weather information so the ball was not replaced. Here's the jingle the public used to deciper the ball's forecast: "When the Weatherball is red, warmer weather is ahead. When the Weatherball is green, no change in weather is foreseen. When the Weatherball is white, colder weather is in sight. If colors blink by night or day, precipitation's on the way."


Minneapolis Weatherball
The Minneapolis Weatherball (Courtesy of the Minneapolis Public Library, Minneapolis Collection)

Technology continued to march on as the years went by. In 1955 the first computer generated weather forecast model was available for use and in 1960 the first weather satellite was launched. In the early 1960s the first weather radar (WSR-57) was installed at the airport facility. For the first time local meteorologists were able to see storms develop and could track them as they moved through the region.

In the fall of 1994, National Weather Service Doppler Radar (WSR-88D) was installed in the Twin Cities. This was the first government radar which was capable of measuring the speed and direction of winds inside of a thunderstorm. The Doppler Radar allowed National Weather Service meteorologists to be able to detect rotating winds inside of a thunderstorm, a precursor to tornado develpment.

Weather Radar at Minneapolis Airport
Duane O'Malley operates the WSR-57 Radar at the airport office (NWS photo)

In 1940 the Weather Bureau was transferred from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to the Department of Commerce. In 1970 the U.S. Weather Bureau became the National Weather Service. These changes acknowledged the importance of the agency's weather forecasts and warnings to the U.S. economy.

By the late 1980s with all of the new technology being used for weather observing and forecasting, the National Weather Service began to outgrow the confines of the old Administration building at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. The search was on for a new location, and by the early 1990s a site in the growing suburb of Chanhassen was chosen.

Out to the Suburbs: The Chanhassen Weather Office (1995 to present)

Back to Main Weather History Site


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