Sunday, February 6, 2011

Weather Station "Kurt"

Weather forecasting has improved steadily over the last thirty years or so, and there are probably three main reasons for this. Firstly we have vastly improved access to satellite imagery, with increasing frequency and quality becoming available. And then mathematical modeling of the weather using ever more powerful computers has advanced considerably during this time. And, tied in with this, is the continually expanding network of automatic weather stations (AWS’s) that provides high quality observational data for input into the forecasting process.

Above: A technician services the sensor of an automatic weather station. (Image: Wikipedia Commons - click to enlarge)

AWS’s are high tech instruments providing a continuous stream of weather information that is channelled into computers to power the mathematical models used for weather prediction. Consisting of a “black box” packed with electronics and sensors, they provide measurements of temperature, humidity, rainfall, barometric pressure and also wind speed and direction and then transmit this information back to a main meteorological centre.

An automatic weather station being installed in Antarctica (Image Wikipedia Commons, William N. Connolley - click to enlarge)

They can be powered by solar cells in remote locations, or, if a suitable source exists, from mains electricity.

It is generally assumed that AWS’s are modern instruments but a surprising find emerged in the late 1970’s when a retired German technician Franz Selinger, began writing the history of the Siemens Company, and discovered old files indicating that during World War 2 Siemens had manufactured a type of automatic weather station called Wetter-Funkgerat Land (WFL) with twenty six of these eventually built.

The Germans had needed weather information from around the Atlantic Ocean to plan their U-Boat operations and had intended to install WFL units at various locations that would transmit weather data back to Germany by radio. Then further research revealed an amazing story that had occurred during the war but had been almost totally forgotten in the mists of time.

In 1943, the German submarine U-537 departed from Kiel carrying a normal combat crew, but also a meteorologist Dr. Kurt Sommermeyer and a Siemens WFL unit codenamed “Weather Station Kurt”.

In a top-secret James Bond style operation, U-537 arrived in a remote area called Martin Bay in far northeastern Canada, and an armed party, accompanied by Sommermeyer, went ashore and successfully installed WFL “Kurt” on a rocky outcrop before departing without detection. It is believed that this was the only enemy landing on North American soil during the Second World War. Some idea of the remoteness of Martin Bay can be seen in the last photo of the series at

The battery powered “Kurt” was designed to transmit weather information in code every three hours and this it did, although the data flow ceased after only a few days. This could have been a technical malfunction or the result of radio jamming by Allied forces.

“Kurt” was then forgotten but following Selinger’s research a possible location was revealed. In 1981 the Canadian Coastguard investigated, and to everyone’s amazement, rediscovered “Kurt” standing alone on the rocky knoll where it had been installed 38 years before. Canadian technicians were surprised at the highly advanced array of meteorological instruments and supporting telemetry systems that were built into “Kurt” – it compared well with even modern automatic weather stations.

The instrument was then restored and is currently located in the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

Weather station "Kurt" today showing the instrument masts and battery canisters painted in military camouflage livery. (Image: Wikipedia Commons - click to enlarge)

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