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Breaking the Ice: The Weather Bureau and the 1960 Olympic Winter Games

Breaking the Ice: The Weather Bureau and the 1960 Olympic Winter Games

By Emily Senesac (emily.senesac@noaa.gov)

Snow, ice, and all of the winter weather in-between can undoubtedly affect day-to-day events and activities -- but what about international athletic ones? More than 60 years ago, the Weather Bureau was approached to provide special weather services for the 1960 Olympic Winter Games in Squaw Valley, California.

In early 1958, after getting confirmation that the Weather Bureau would help with forecasting and observation for the 1960 Games, the Organizing Committee of the VIII Olympic Winter Games authorized and initiated the construction of a complete, fully-staffed weather station at Squaw Valley. This office was built by the winter of 1958-9, and remained operational through the first winter season to provide forecasters with some observation experience in the specific climate and under local conditions. The forecasters that staffed the weather station were detailed from the San Francisco forecast office. 

Located high in the Sierra Nevadas, Squaw Valley is a massive natural amphitheater, nestled in the peaks high above sea level. Although weather records for Squaw Valley were limited, Games forecasters relied on the reported conditions from neighboring locations to provide a reliable baseline average. 

Athletes from all over the globe flocked to the valley for the competition, which was set to begin on February 18, 1960. Historically, the 1960 Games marked the first time that an entire Olympic village was constructed for the Winter Games. During the events, special maps of current weather conditions were displayed in the village and at the Organizing Committee headquarters, accompanied by a forecast and discussion of existing storm conditions that could affect the valley and the competition. To accommodate the international athletes, this information was translated into several different languages. 

The observations taken by the Squaw Valley forecasters were all-encompassing: temperature, humidity, wind, and sky cover were measured regularly. Anemometers were installed atop the two highest peaks of the neighboring mountains, and regular snowfall and snow depth readings were taken in the valley and on the slopes. Specifically, the conditions of wind, temperature, and humidity had a direct bearing on the ice skating competition, so readings of those were taken during the events themselves. 

According to Weather Bureau Topics, the presence of the Weather Bureau at the Squaw Valley Olympic Winter Games had a significant impact on the results of the competition: 

“The weathermen at Squaw Valley are scrutinizing the caprices of wind, storms, snow and ice, temperatures, and surface conditions that can spell record performances or disappointing postponements in the 1960 international sport classic.” 

In the years since, the Olympic Games and other sports events have garnered an even wider worldwide audience and increased in scope and size, yet forecasting the weather remains a top priority, as does ensuring the safety of the participants and spectators. Today, the NWS focuses on the latter, working closely with Emergency Managers at national. and local events to provide Impact-based Decision Support Services to help keep the public safe at events like these.