A HISTORY OF THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE IN BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA

(A special thanks to former Warning Coordination Meteorologist, Brain E. Peters,
for compiling most of the history below.)

Introduction

National Weather Service

The National Weather Service (NWS), formerly known as the Weather Bureau (WB), has a long history in Birmingham, Alabama. The NWS Weather Forecast Office (WFO) today is the forecast center for Central Alabama making general weather forecasts for the public as well as forecasts for aviation, forestry, and other interests. Besides the forecast charge, the Birmingham NWS office has warning responsibility for the same area, which consists of 39 Alabama counties.

This paper is intended to chronicle the general history of the NWS in Birmingham from the beginning of the Signal Service's presence in the very late 1800s to present day. The information presented here was garnered from old journals found on-station at the Weather Service Forecast Office located at 11 West Oxmoor Road, Suite 417. It is intended to be as complete as possible within the limitations of historical material at-hand. Anyone with knowledge or historical documents pertaining to the National Weather Service operations in the Birmingham area are invited to contact the office at the Shelby County airport.

 

Early Days

Weather observations were established by the Signal Service in April, 1882. These early records were taken at a Cotton Region Station maintained in cooperation with L & N and Alabama Great Southern Railroad (a predecessor to today's Norfok Southern Railway).

The records from 1882 until September, 1895, were not continuous. During this period, the records were kept from time-to-time by a Cotton Region Observer, by a volunteer Signal Service and State Weather Observer, and by a volunteer Weather Bureau Observer. A note in the "Climatological Record Birmingham, Ala" specified that W. J. Danforth was the observer from April to August, 1883; R. N. Abbey from July to August, 1883; James F. Knight, October, 1883; J. E. Walter from April, 1884, to October, 1885; S. E. Wilson from April to October 1886.

Documents dated 1903 indicated that the Birmingham observations were established as a cotton belt station in April, 1882. It was made a voluntary station in January, 1885, discontinued in October, 1886, and re-established as a voluntary station in June, 1893. It was changed to "Station Agency" in September, 1895, and to a regular Weather Bureau station on July 16, 1903.

Mr. W. B. Sommerville maintained weather records from September, 1884, to July, 1900, at various locations. These included near 19th Street and 2nd Avenue on the second floor until the latter part of 1885, at 5th Avenue and 22nd Street from the latter part of 1885 through early 1886, and on 17th Street near 8th Avenue from December, 1886, to July, 1900. Records from Mr. Sommerville were apparently only available to the Weather Bureau from September, 1884, to June, 1886.

A voluntary weather observer, Mr. Ben M. Jacobs, began records for the Weather Bureau on April 4, 1893, and continued brokenly, that is with no Sunday observations, until September 14, 1895.

On September 14, 1895, continuous weather records were begun with the establishment of a Weather Bureau agency referred to as a Station Agency. Mr. Ben M. Jacobs was the Agent. The office was located in a 3-story building, the Walker and Jordan Building, at 2011 First Avenue North with the instruments exposed on the roof of the building.

Establishment of a Permanent Office

According to an article in the Birmingham newspaper, December 19, 1902, Chief Moore, head of the Weather Bureau, consented to establishing a full-time, First Order Weather Bureau office in Birmingham after the Board of Trade took up the matter with the assistance of Representative Underwood who handled the Washington end of things. The article further stated that the station would cost $7000 and "...will be as complete as any in the south except those on the coast which have an instrument for measuring the tide." The full time facility would replace the volunteer operation.

The establishment of the full-time facility occurred on July 16, 1903. In accordance with the provisions of Instructions No. 95, 1903, Mr. W. A. Mitchell proceeded from Washington, D. C., to Birmingham for the purpose of establishing and assuming charge of a regular observing station of the Weather Bureau.

Mr. Mitchell's first task was finding suitable quarters for the office. According to his journal, the only suitable rooms available at once were in the Title Guarantee Building, 21st Street at 3rd Avenue North. A rental agreement was made with the agent for the building, and Mr. Mitchell set about making the necessary arrangements for situating the instruments with proper exposure on the roof of the building. He, in fact, took bids to have the work done, but, since the bids were found to be unusually high, Mr. Mitchell undertook to have the work done through the open market and the direct purchase of materials. In the station journal, Mr. Mitchell noted that "...the installation of all instruments, including the construction of a platform on the roof was done for $32.12 which was a saving of $130.48 on the lowest bid." All instruments were apparently in place and operational by the end of August, 1903.

Shortly after Mr. Mitchell's arrival, Mr. S. E. Pateman of White City, Kansas, arrived in Birmingham to assume the duties of Assistant Observer. He entered on duty at 6:00 am on July 9, 1903. It does not appear that Mr. Jacobs continued working for the Weather Bureau after this. Notes at the end of monthly entries in the "Daily Journal" indicated that "...there is no instructed substitute who could replace the observer or assistant..."

The first official Weather Bureau observation was taken in Weather Bureau quarters at 8:00 am, September 1, 1903. Tests of the weather instruments continued throughout the day, and by the close of the day, all were in good working order.

From Mr. Mitchell's "Daily Journal" comes this note on the weather for September 1, 1903:

"The day began clear and unusually cool - the minimum temperature being 57.3 degrees at 5 am. Cumulus clouds began to form about 9 am. and increased. The afternoon was partly cloudy until 5 pm. after which the cloudiness gradually disappeared and the sky was clear at sunset. Maximum temperature for the day was 79.0 degrees. Fresh north wind."

The weather remained uneventful for only a short time. On January 22, 1904, a storm rolled through Birmingham in the early morning hours. Considerable damage was done to North Birmingham about a mile from the station. From entries in the "Daily Journal", it appears that a series of tornadoes affected Alabama on the evening of the 21st and early morning hours of the 22nd. While no deaths were reported in Birmingham, great damage with 37 deaths was reported in Moundville. The storm did damage in Hull and Bessemer before striking its final blow at Sumter where four additional people were killed.

In March, 1904, Mr. S. E. Pateman resigned his position as Assistant Observer. The "Daily Journal" notes that Mr. Pateman left the office with measles and returned about nine days later to tender his resignation, still unwell. Mr. Pateman was replaced on the 22nd of March by Mr. H. I. Stine from Fort Worth, Texas, whose position was listed as messenger.

Mr. Stine was employed through August 22nd, 1904, and was replaced by Mr. W. F. Mahanay as temporary messenger. His salary was listed at $1.00 a day.

Mr. W. A. Mitchell remained as Observer in Charge through April, 1905. He was replaced then by Mr. W. F. Lehman whose title was Official in Charge. There were no indications in the "Daily Journal" as to what happened or why Mr. Mitchell was replaced. Interestingly, though, the "Daily Journal" lacked any reference to the office force or office workers after the end of 1904. It was as if a directive had been issued eliminating entries other than those pertaining to weather observations.

 

Permanent Building

The Weather Bureau Office remained in the Title Guarantee Building until a permanent Weather Bureau building was built in 1907. The building at 1171 13th Street North was occupied on November 30, 1907. This location was in the hilly terrain just north of the city proper at the corner of 12th Avenue and 13th Street. Twelfth Avenue was originally Alta (or Elta) Avenue, then 12th Avenue and then 12th Court. NWS Building Circa 1910

Weather Bureau activities continued from this location until December 1, 1945, when a consolidation of the Weather Bureau office and the Weather Bureau Airport Station was made at the Birmingham Municipal Airport.

Over the next fifteen years or so, the Weather Bureau Building had three different addresses including 1173, 1171, and the final address of 1221. This information was garnered from City Directories which also noted that the last address change was completed as part of a major renumbering by the City of Birmingham. No explanation or reason was found for the other number change.

Edgar C. Horton was the Official in Charge (OIC) of the Weather Bureau until 1945, however, it has been impossible to determine the exact date his service in Birmingham began. According to entries in the City Directory, Mr. Horton's name first appeared along with the entry for the Weather Bureau Building in 1917.

Few records seem to exist on the office from around 1907 through 1945.

 

Office Consolidation

During World War II, the Weather Bureau established an airways observation post at the Birmingham airport. This meant that there were two offices in Birmingham, a city office at the Weather Bureau Building and an airport office. Records indicated that Mr. Charles F. Bradley reported for duty as OIC of the airport office on March 13, 1943, working under the direction of Mr. Horton at the City Office.

Mr. Horton retired in 1945, and the Weather Bureau consolidated the two offices at the airport. Due to an initial lack of space at the airport, some functions were kept at the Weather Bureau Building, though the exact length of time this continued or the functions involved were not specified.

The Weather Bureau Building remained occupied by Mr. Edgar C. Horton and his NWS/FAA Building, Birmingham Airportfamily from the time of his retirement until 1953 according to his daughter, Ms. E. C. Horton. The building was sold to Fountain Heights Methodist Church.

On October 3, 1965, the FAA and Weather Bureau dedicated a new building at the Birmingham airport. The facility built entirely with City funds at a cost of $170,000 housed the FAA Flight Service Station and General Aviation District Office and the Weather Bureau. Mr. Bradley was Meteorologist-in-Charge at the time.

 

Forecast Office

NWS employee at a teletype machine with paper tape reader, circa 1970s

In 1969, as part of the re-organization of the Weather Bureau under the Environmental Science Services Administration, ESSA, ESSA emblemthe Birmingham Weather Bureau Office was designated the forecast office for Alabama and Northwest Florida. Mr. Robert M. Ferry reported for duty in September, 1969, as the first Meteorologist-in-Charge of the Weather Bureau Forecast Office. Mr. Bradley became the Principal Assistant, or second in charge.

In 1971, the observation and forecast programs of the Weather Bureau were split when the Forecast Office moved from the airport to West Oxmoor Tower at 11 West Oxmoor Road. The offices occupied the southwest corner of the fourth floor of the six story office building.

NWS Office at West Oxmoor Tower Between 1977 and 1979, the NWS underwent a major change in operations nationwide with the addition of a computer system that replaced facsimile machines and teletypes for data transmission. The computer system, known as AFOS for Automation of Field Operations and Services, displayed forecast guidance, both weather charts and numerical weather guidance, and gave forecasters the capability to compose forecasts and warnings electronically. AFOS essentially began a technological change to the face of the NWS that has continued well into the 1990s.

Mr. Ferry retired as MIC in August, 1980, and was replaced in early 1981 by Mr. Frank Makosky who had been serving as the MIC at a smaller forecast office in Little Rock, AR. Mr. Makosky served as MIC until December of 1988. He was in turn replaced by Mr. Gary Petti as the MIC.

The 90s - a Period of Rapid Change

The early 1990s saw additional changes to the National Weather Service as the network of WSR-57 (Weather Surveillance Radar-57) radars was replaced with a new system of radars incorporating Doppler capability for measuring velocity of water droplets in storms. The new system, referred to during the developmental stage as NEXRAD for NEXt generation RADar, was officially dubbed the WSR-88D in 1988 when UNISYS Corporation was awarded a contract to build and install the new radars across the country.

The NWS conducted an extensive survey for radar sites in and around the Birmingham area and finally settled on an excellent location about 25 miles south-southeast of downtown Birmingham on property owned by Alabama Power Company. In order to incorporate the new technology, the NWS also decided to build a new facility rather than perform extensive renovations at the West Oxmoor site. In 1992, the NWS signed a 50-year lease with the Shelby County Commission for approximately three acres located at the Shelby County airport immediately across the interstate from the radar site.

NWS Office, Calera, AL

Ground breaking for the new building occurred in October, 1992, and construction was completed at a cost of $1.1 million in October, 1993. The building was officially occupied by the NWS staff on November 30, 1993, when all existing equipment was re-located from the Oxmoor location.

The use of Doppler radar in Alabama actually began in February, 1992, with the completion of the WSR-88D near Montgomery. This radar site is actually known by several names including the Montgomery radar, the Maxwell radar, and the East Alabama radar. The radar is located about 30 miles east-northeast of Montgomery just off State Road 49 in Macon County. Control of the radar resides with the Maxwell Air Force Base weather unit, but the NWS in Birmingham was connected to the radar by dedicated telephone line.

The radar and associated monitoring equipment became operational on February 19, 1992. Two days later, on February 22st, the first mesocyclone shown by Doppler radar in Alabama was detected with a complex of three thunderstorms moving from southern Cherokee County, AL, into Polk County, GA. The tornado produced by this storm left a damage path more than 40 miles long, injured five people in Alabama, and killed one person in Cedartown, GA.

The Birmingham Doppler radar was installed in the spring of 1994. Because the Doppler system replaced the older radar system (WSR-57) at Centreville, the upper air observation program was re-located to the Shelby County site in August, 1994. The Centreville office was subsequently closed in late summer of 1995.

As the Modernization and Restructuring Program of the National Weather Service was implemented, warning and forecast responsibilities of NWS offices were changed. The Montgomery, AL, and Columbus, GA, offices were reduced to one person operations. Office staffs at Tallahassee, FL, and Mobile, AL, were increased. The objective of the program was to place both warning and forecast responsibilities within each office for the areas covered by their respective Doppler radar units, thus reducing the forecast area while at the same time increasing the warning area. Due to community intervention, the Huntsville NWS office remained operational pending the Congressionally mandated certification of services through the Modernization Transition Committee (MTC) and the Secretary of Department of Commerce. The MTC recommended closure of the Huntsville office at their final meeting in December, 1999.

WSR-88D Hytop Dome RaisedAn additional Doppler radar was installed in northeast Alabama in early 1997 at Hytop in Jackson County. The radar was strategically placed to provide additional radar coverage for the Huntsville, AL, area as well as the Chattanooga, TN, area. Hytop, AL, is almost exactly halfway between the two cities. Installation occurred in the spring, 1997, with the radar in operational use by June, 1997. The radar was officially commissioned in December, 1997.

With the addition of the Hytop radar, the Birmingham office became one of only a handful of NWS offices nationwide with three radars. Operationally, the Columbus, MS, radar also plays a role in radar surveillance used by the Birmingham staff and is routinely accessed via dial-up capability. A map (size=16K) is available showing the WSR-88D Doppler radar coverage for Alabama.

An additional component of the modernization of the National Weather Service consisted of a major upgrade to the computer equipment used at NWS field offices. The last major computer upgrade occurred in the late 1970s with the introduction of the AFOS (Auomation of Field Operations and Services) computers. AFOS underwent numerous improvements over it's nearly 25 year life and waw replaced by AWIPS, the Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System. As with many NWS projects involving operational equipment, AWIPS installation was accomplished over several years. AWIPS installation occurred in the Birmingham office during late April, 1999, during the latter phase of the AWIPS project.

Communication Dishes at WFO BirminghamThe new generation of computer systems, AWIPS, included equipment that to allow forecasters integration of all elements including satellite, numerical model data, and radar data. AWIPS included a downlink satellite path (see photograph) for much of the data received at the Birmingham office via land-lines.

The final NWS structural changes in Alabama were implemented on November 15, 1999. The change consisted of formal recognition of two NWS offices in Alabama, one in Birmingham and one in Mobile. Along with this, the warning and forecast responsibility was divided between three NWS offices, Birmingham, Mobile, and Tallahassee.

The NWS facility at the Shelby County Airport in Calera is composed of three elements. The automated observing equipment known as ASOS (Automated Surface Observing System) is located south of the NWS office building housing forecast and warning operations for north and central Alabama. To the north of the NWS office is the upper air inflation building where weather balloons are prepared for release and tracked to obtain pressure, temperature, humidity, and wind data on the atmosphere.

During the late 1990’s, a new voice was developed for NOAA Weather Radio (NWR). This voice is actually computer generated and is a Console Replacement Systemcomponent of NWR called CRS, or Console Replacement System. CRS inserts the messages directly into the broadcast cycle for any of the transmitters programmed from NWS Birmingham.  One of the greatest benefits from the system is the speed with which warning messages are broadcast. Under previous procedures, a person had to take the warning message, make the recording, program the necessary codes for the Specific Area Message Encoding (SAME) and alert tones, and then initiate the broadcast. This process would take up to two minutes for even the most proficient operators. Using CRS, the computer generated voice reads the warning within seconds of the time that a meteorologist generates the warning message.

 

 

Welcome to the National Weather Service of the New Millennium

In 2000, WFO Birmingham implemented an instant messaging service, in other words a real-time chat, into severe weather operations.  The project was initiated in hopes of providing improved communications between the media and the National Weather Service.   During severe Instant Messaging Windowweather, the WFO staff advises the media when a warning is about to be issued, and provides the reasoning behind the warning decision. With Instant Messaging, the media can easily pass this information to the public and in turn relay any reports of severe weather back to the NWS.  Instant Messaging is truly a success in regards to the meteorological community’s ability to work together for the safety of Alabamians.

In late 2001, Ken Graham replaced Gary Petti as Meteorologist in Charge.  Meanwhile, a restructuring of NWS Birmingham’s County Warning Area (CWA) once again loomed in the near future.  The National Weather Service Forecast Office in Huntsville, Alabama began operations at 10am on January 14, 2003. As part of WFO Huntsville’s expansion, 11 North Alabama counties including Lauderdale, Limestone, Madison, Jackson, Colbert, Franklin, Lawrence, Cullman, Morgan, Marshall, and De Kalb became part of Huntsville’s CWA. 

Graphical Forecast EditorMajor changes in the way NWS Birmingham composed forecasts began in 2003 as the Interactive Forecast Preparation System (IFPS) was integrated into WFO Birmingham’s daily operations.  The WFO staff uses a Graphical Forecast Editor (GFE), a part of the Interactive Forecast Preparation System (IFPS), which allows forecasters to create detailed graphical depictions of expected weather, while at the same time creating a digital forecast database (the grids) of the same weather information.   IFPS eliminates the need to manually type forecast products and allows forecasters to concentrate on the actual forecast.  From this digital database, forecast products are automatically composed.

The National Weather Service improved the delivery of flood warnings and forecasts in 2004 with the Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service (AHPS). AHPS provides new information and products along with forecasts of river levels and river flow volumes for areas large and small through the AHPS webpage. With advance knowledge from using the AHPS webpage, communities can minimize flooding impacts.   To help in the effort of educating Alabamians about the dangers of flooding, WFO Birmingham created the FloodReady program to help prepare communities for flash floods and long term river flooding. The FloodReady program works through awareness, education, and preventive planning.  The process is very in-depth, and may take several months to complete, as each applicant must satisfy all the criteria set forth by the FloodReady committee.  This past January, Tuscaloosa County became the first county in the country to achieve FloodReady recognition and Wadley was the first town to ever become FloodReady in June 2004.

 

In 2004, several forecasters from WFO Birmingham joined together to create an extensive Alabama Tornado Database.  This database contains information on just about every tornado that has been documented since 1819.  It even includes the 28 counties which are outside of WFO Birmingham’s County Warning Area.   With this Tornado Database, tornado events can be found by choosing different counties, years, and even months.  Another more extensive database was introduced in 2005 as a project 3 years in the making called the Alabama Weather Page.  This webpage is a collaborative effort between the National Weather Service in Birmingham, the Alabama Office of State Climatology, and the University of Alabama at Huntsville. The Alabama Weather Page has everything from real time warnings and radar to forecasts and outlooks.  It even has climate data, storm data, and a warning archive, and storm reports can be submitted in real time online.   

 After a short three and a half year stay at WFO Birmingham, former Meteorologist-In-Charge Ken Graham was promoted to Southern Region Headquarters as Chief of Systems Operations Division.    His replacement is current Meteorologist-In-Charge Jim Stefkovich who joined the office from WFO Chicago.

 


 

Listing of Meteorologists-in-Charge

Apr. 4, 1893 - July 15, 1903 Ben M. Jacobs
July 15, 1903 - ?? W. A. Mitchell
?? - Nov. 30, 1945 Edgar C. Horton
Mar. 13, 1943 - Nov. 30, 1945 Charles F. Bradley, Jr. (OIC at airport office under Mr. Horton) (picture)
Nov. 30, 1945 - Dec. 28, 1973 Charles F. Bradley, Jr. (became MIC when city office and airport office combined at airport)
Sep. 21, 1969 - Aug. 30, 1980 Robert M. Ferry (first MIC of the Weather Service Forecast Office) (picture)
Mar. 8, 1981 - Dec. 1, 1988 Frank Makosky
Dec. 2, 1988 - Sep. 22, 2001 Gary S. Petti (picture)
Sep. 23, 2001 - Dec. 2, 2001 Kevin J. Pence, Acting MIC (picture)
Dec. 2, 2001 - Feb. 26, 2005 Kenneth E. Graham (picture)
May 1, 2005 - Present Jim Stefkovich


USA.gov is the U.S. government's official web portal to all federal, state and local government web resources and services.