Weather Window: Rogue weather engineer ‘saved’ the 1960 Winter Olympics
January 20, 2010
After one of the best starts for December snowfall in recent memory, the productive weather pattern pretty much fizzled out after New Year’s Day. The storm door didn’t slam shut, but a split in the all-important jet stream gutted several potential Pacific storms of their energy. As a result, water content in the Tahoe Basin snowpack slid to less than 80 percent of normal by mid-January.
Lucky for us, this week were hammered by a series of juicy storms that surged across the Pacific, driven by a steroidal jet stream exceeding 200 mph. The fresh powder was great news for our regional resorts and local businesses, and the media headlines will attract skiers and boarders to the mountains for weeks to come.
Fifty years ago, timely storms also saved the 1960 Squaw Valley Olympics. Site preparation for the Winter Games took five years and more than $15 million dollars. No previous Olympic host community had ever attempted even a fraction of what organizers put together at Squaw. The only thing they couldn’t control was the weather, and without a snowmaking system in place, they were at the mercy of Pacific storms.
In late 1959, however, persistent high pressure kept the region bone dry. With the eyes of the nation and the world on Squaw Valley’s weather and no snowstorms in sight, Olympic organizers were getting nervous. Native Americans from western Nevada were brought in to perform snow dances, but their physical gyrations coaxed no snow from the blue skies.
Fortunately, a professional weather forecaster from Southern California named Irving P. Krick was on the payroll. Krick was one of the first widely-known commercial meteorologists in the United States, although the U.S. Weather Bureau and American Meteorological Society (AMS) both considered him a fraud. Krick was also an early proponent of using silver iodide particles for cloud seeding.
Irving Krick had been named the official “weather engineer” for the Winter Olympics, in part because he had provided a forecast for February 1960 two years earlier, specifically singling out that the second half of the month was the best time to hold the Games. He also promised that if mountain snow depths were inadequate, he would come to the valley and produce what was needed.
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The Northern California chapter of the AMS, who had tossed Krick out of their organization prior to the Winter Games, notified the Olympic Organizing Committee of their “concern and displeasure” with Krick’s appointment. They warned that since the rogue weatherman was not a member of the AMS he was not bound by the Society’s concept of professional ethics. They also said that Krick’s long range forecast two years before the Olympics was a “scientific impossibility” that did professional meteorology a disservice.
In preparation for the possibility of poor snow conditions, Krick had positioned 20 ground-based cloud seeding generators around Squaw Valley. When New Year’s Day 1960 came and went with no snow, Krick himself was getting nervous. During the second week of January, however, weather patterns began to look more favorable for seeding.
As storm clouds rolled in, Krick’s generators began pumping out clouds of silver iodide particles that drifted into the sky and it began to snow. By Jan. 10, more than 3.5 feet of snow buried the valley floor, with more than 7 feet on the upper mountain. Irving Krick claimed credit for the snow, but Sierra weather is fickle and cold logic suggests the storms would have arrived anyway.
After the Olympics, H.D. Thoreau, director for the organizing committee, thanked Krick, saying, “We were, indeed, fortunate in the selection of our dates for the Games from the standpoint of good weather.”
– Weather historian Mark McLaughlin’s new book, “Longboards to Olympics: A Century of Tahoe Winter Sports” is now available at local bookstores or at http://www.thestormking.com. Mark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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