Whether or not it will rain. A brief history on weather forecasting.
Oh, the decisions we have to make. You think to yourself, should I go to the car wash today or not? Maybe it’ll rain later. Looks nice right now. Probably won’t rain, but maybe tomorrow? Hasn’t rained in a while, I’m probably safe. Better yet, let me check my weather app. To your satisfaction there is no rain in the forecast. So, you head over to your friendly RIO car wash and get the Manager’s Special Wash, because, after all, for only $20 you get the best wash RIO offers, with all the bells and whistles, and your car looks great, right?! And, boy do you pray for no rain.
Well, hopefully it didn’t rain and you and your ride are enjoying sunny days in a super clean car. But, did you ever stop to think what it’s really like to forecast the weather or how we got to this point in weather forecasting? For the weather nerds out there or the just plain curious, here’s a quick, but interesting read on the history of weather forecasting.
First, imagine the earth, 8000 miles in diameter, with an uneven surface and constantly rotating. The earth is surrounded by 25 miles of gases of different concentrations, heated by a nuclear reactor 93 million miles away (yes, the sun). As the earth revolves around the sun some locations are heated more during one part of the turn and other locations are heated during another part. To add to the fun, this mixture of gases continually receives inputs from the surface below. Imagine after watching all of this amazing activity, you are expected to predict its state at one location one, two, or more days into the future. Welcome to the world of the weather forecaster.
Throughout the centuries, attempts have been made to produce forecasts based on weather lore and personal observations. By the end of the Renaissance, it became evident that greater knowledge was needed to further our understanding of the atmosphere. To do this, instruments like the hygrometer were created to measure the humidity of air. Galileo invented an early thermometer in 1592; and Evangelista Torricelli invented the barometer for measuring atmospheric pressure in 1643.
The invention of the telegraph in the mid-nineteenth century allowed the transmission of weather observations to and from observers and compilers. Using this data, crude weather maps were drawn and surface wind patterns and storm systems could be identified. In the 1860’s weather-observing stations began appearing across the globe, resulting in the birth of weather forecasting based on the analysis of many observations taken simultaneously over a wide area. Around that time a weather forecast might have sounded something like this, “Through tomorrow, probably fair with a fresh breeze,” a stark contrast to the 7 to 10 day forecasts of today.
Another great stride in monitoring weather at high altitudes was made in the 1920s with the invention of the radiosonde, small lightweight boxes equipped with weather instruments and a radio transmitter carried high into the atmosphere by a hydrogen or helium-filled balloon. The radiosonde ascended to an altitude of about 18 miles before bursting. During the ascent, it transmitted temperature, moisture, and pressure back to a ground station. There data was processed and made available for constructing weather maps.
The idea of numerical weather forecasting—predicting the weather by solving mathematical equations began in 1904 and took several tries to produce a wildly inaccurate six-hour forecast for an area near Munich, Germany. These first attempts at numerical forecasting would have required a large roomful of 64,000 people, each computing separate sections of numerical equations, and a system for transmitting the results as needed from one part of the room to another!
This highlighted the fact that a large number of calculations had to be made very rapidly in order to produce a timely forecast. In the late 1940s, using one of the earliest modern computers, progress was made by a team of meteorologists and mathematicians at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, New Jersey and by the mid-1950s, numerical forecasts were being made on a regular basis.
Modern technology, including computers and weather satellites have resulted in enormous improvements in the accuracy of weather forecasting. Satellites have given forecasters routine access to observations and data from remote areas of the globe. Numerical weather models are now run operationally on the NOAA/National Weather Service. By October 2015, supercomputers in Maryland were crunching of calculations every second! We’ve come a long way since 1870!
Aside from a spot free car, there are big economic benefits of more accurate weather forecasts, such as allowing airline dispatchers enough time to reroute planes and help alleviate costly delays. Being able to pinpoint a wintertime low temperature in Florida helps orange growers make decisions to use or not use freeze prevention methods to save crops. Better information on wind patterns aids the National Hurricane Center in producing more accurate hurricane forecasts and enables better decisions regarding evacuations.
There you have. Even though they don’t get it right all of the time, we owe a big thanks to the weather forecasters in our world. Now if we can just get the guy on the 6:00 news to lose the toupee.