Historic NWS weather station moves to Great Mountain Forest

Russell Russ, Weather Observer of Record at Norfolk 2SW in new location.

Photo by Jennifer Almquist

Historic NWS weather station moves to Great Mountain Forest

NORFOLK — The Icebox of Connecticut is the rather whimsical nickname of Norfolk, yet it is rooted in the fact that it is often the coldest town in the state. 

In 1956, the record shows it snowed 175 inches in one winter in Norfolk. For the past 92 years, a daily record has been kept of the temperature, precipitation, and the water content of the snow on the ground at Great Mountain Forest (GMF), the 6,000-acre conservation area and woodland habitat that straddles Norfolk and Falls Village. 

The official name of the weather station is Norfolk 2SW, because the station is 2 miles southwest of the Post Office in Norfolk. At 1,400 feet, GMF is one of the highest National Weather Service (NWS) station elevations in Connecticut.

The week of Thanksgiving, after nearly a century of steady weather reporting, Norfolk 2SW has officially been relocated by the NWS from its original location in Norfolk to a more prominent and accessible location at the working headquarters of GMF in front of the forestry office. This month, a three-man crew under the direction of Deanna Marks, lead NWS representative for this region, arrived from the Albany, New York, office. With the help of GMF staff, excavators and tractors, they dug new holes, trenches for coaxial cables, and placed the array of measuring instruments within a split-rail fence.  

According to Russell Russ, weather observer of record at Norfolk 2SW: “The idea of the relocation came from me. The idea was to consolidate it at the GMF forestry office area where it could continue for many years, no matter what happens to the private land it was on. The original location was on private land owned by the Childs family. My request for the move had to be thoroughly reviewed by the NWS, and they approved it. When I asked the NWS people how many stations they have moved, they said that relocations are rare. Only one had done a relocation and that was 20 years ago. 

“NWS really likes the Norfolk station — for its location, for its long and unbroken length of time of observing, for the station’s meticulous record keeping for nearly 100 years, and for the exceptional care of the station and equipment that all observers have done here over the years. “       

Once a family-owned forest, GMF is one of the oldest conservation areas in the country. In 1909, Frederic C. Walcott, U.S. Senator from Connecticut, and his Yale roommate Starling Childs initially purchased 400 acres around Tobey Pond that had been laid bare by the charcoal industry in the early 1800s. Childs and Walcott began restoring and conserving the land, planting native species, eventually amassing thousands of acres of forestland that became GMF. 

GMF is a “working forest,” which means it is “actively managed to generate revenue from multiple sources, including sustainably produced timber and other ecosystems services,” according to the definition established by the World Resources Institute. 

In 2021 GMF gained membership in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), whose mission is to assess the status of the natural world and the measures needed to safeguard it. 

The Childs family legacy continued as Edward “Ted” Coffin Childs grew into his father’s role and began managing the forest. His interest in the weather began as a boy. Ted credited his love of weather to his boyhood in New York City where, he claimed, “You could tell the temperature in New York by the squeaking of the milk wagons.” 

Recording the weather became part of his master’s thesis at the Yale Forest School (its original name) in 1932. Ted began his official daily observations of Norfolk weather at his home on Windrow Road on Jan. 1, 1932, and GMF became a volunteer NWS Cooperative Weather Observer Station, one of 165 in Connecticut. He and his wife, Elisabeth Calder Childs, raised their four children at GMF.

Since 2003, forester Russell M. Russ, property manager of GMF, has been the daily weather observer of record for the Norfolk 2SW. Each morning without fail, he treks up the mountain to read the data, recorded by precision instruments, of the previous 24 hours of weather, including high and low temperatures and precipitation. The discipline of his work comes from the example set by his father, Darrell Russ, who worked as a forester at GMF for 50 years, and was a longtime weather observer at Norfolk 2SW, one of a small group that garnered some of the highest honors given to private citizens by the NWS.

In 1992 Ted Childs received the Helmut E. Landsberg award for his 60 years of weather-observing service, as well as the Thomas Jefferson Award from the NWS for outstanding achievements in the field of meteorological observations. Paul K. Barten, an assistant professor at what is now called the Yale School of the Environment said: “Childs’ data is one of the most complete and precise meteorological records in this part of the world. It will add an unparalleled opportunity to study the long-term effects of climate on hydrologic processes.” 

In 2002, Darrell Russ was given the Edward H. Stoll Award for his 50 years of weather observation. His son Russell observed that, “Weather observation is critically tied to forestry and tree growth. It enhances research studies of insects, trees, plants, animals, fish, disease, and maple syrup production.” 

Recently there has been a flurry of interest from researchers in the data from Norfolk 2SW, as it is a rare bellwether for scientists studying climate change. Over time, subtle variations begin to show up as patterns indicating change. Russ explained that “The forest area hasn’t changed in the past 100 years, reducing the effect that a changing landscape has on temperature. Our conditions have remained constant, and that makes GMF attractive to researchers and others who use our weather data.” 

Russ shaded his eyes against the beams of light from the sun setting beyond the pine woods, saying: “My feelings of honor and duty are mostly due to Ted and my father [Darrell] and continuing their hard work and dedication — much more of a reason for me than doing it for the NWS or GMF. Those two men watching from above help get me there at 8 every single day.”

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