Saturday, 21 April 2018

Predicting the Weather

“As sources of weather information proliferate, weather reports will become increasingly zone- and time-specific. The day is coming when we’ll be able to flip open our cellular phones or computer notebooks and find out what’s going to happen weatherwise within our zip code during the next three hours.” * I read this, took out my cellphone and checked the weather. Well, the author was right but there was no flip to my phone. Then I checked the publication date on David Laskin’s book Braving the Elements. It was 1996. Weather prediction has moved forward since then so that our local weather is right at our fingertips (although I am often puzzled when my phone says it is cloudy and it is obviously raining or vice versa.)

Some weather still sneaks past weather meteorologists, like this windstorm which downed trees. 

We tend to take knowing tomorrow’s weather for granted. But this wasn’t always the case. Being able to reliably predict periods of fine weather, storms and blizzards has a relatively recent history. As many of our ancestors spent time closer to nature as farmers, sailors or generally living close to the land they were more dependent on the weather. Knowing what was to come would have been a boon. Many turned to local weather lore or written sources such as The Old Farmer’s Almanac, sources which not very reliable. 

In the early part of the 19th century, weather data began to be gathered on a regular basis. Logs of weather and celestial information as well as controversial theories were used to predict the weather. In Britain as well as the US, there were tussles over whose ideas were right. Egos were involved!  With forecasts in print it was obvious when they were totally off base. 

Wrong predictions could lead to loss of life. Incorrect forecasts have been remembered in books such as The Children’s Blizzard, Isaac’s Storm and The Discovery of Weather: Stephen Saxby, the tumultuous birth of weather forecasting, and Saxby’s Gale of 1869 and internet write ups about memorable storms are easy to find. 

It took a long time to get to our present system of weather prediction. Science had to be introduced into the forecasting mix to improve prediction theories. New devices to measure further variables that affect the weather are also down to science and it helped when weather bureaus became more organization than ego driven. But still, predictions are not always right and sometimes they are still wrong enough to make history. 

Finding out about my 2x great-uncle Charles Pratt Chambers’ presentation on climate and weather has shown me another interesting area of history to explore – the often fractious history of the development of weather prediction.  

                                               Charles Pratt Chambers' presentation

Anderson, Katherine. Predicting the Weather: Victorians and the Science of Meteorology. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, US, 2005

Halford, Pauline. Storm Warning: The Origins of the Weather Forecast. Sutton Publishing Limited, Phoenix Mill, UK, 2004

* Laskin, David. Braving the Element: The Stormy History of American Weather. Anchor Books, New York, 1996. p13

Lockett, Jerry. The Discovery of Weather: Stephen Saxby, the tumultuous birth of weather forecasting, and Saxby’s Gale of 1869. Formac Publishing Company Limited, Halifax, N.S., 2012

Moore, Peter. Weather Experiment: The Pioneers Who Sought to See the Future. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2015