Weather Forecasting: Art or Science?
Trying to predict the next rainfall or cold spell is a story as old as civilization.
Weather forecasting began when people started to wonder whether rain, snow, lightning and other daily weather patterns were random occurrences or dependent on the whims of angry gods who needed to be appeased. Gradually, they began to note a relationship between clouds and certain weather patterns. They then came to rely on astrological observations, such as the phases of the moon or position of the stars, to make their predictions.
For many years, meteorology didn’t improve much beyond the stage of elaborate guesses. Farmers looked to restless cows and sailors would take frogs and toads on board ships—apparently, loud croaking was a sign of bad weather to come. Even though meteorological data could be gathered by inventions and instruments such as the thermometer, barometer and hygrometer (an instrument used to measure humidity), predicting the weather remained a matter of superstition well into the 19th century.
A Victorian breakthrough
The man who turned weather forecasting into a respectable science was an Englishman named Robert Fitzroy. Most famous for being the captain of the ship that delivered Charles Darwin to the Galapagos, Fitzroy put to use a network of telegraph wires in order to collect real-time weather data from the coasts. From this data, he was able to chart what was known about pressure systems and cloud movement to issue storm warnings. Once he refined his methods, he was able to predict the temperature and other conditions like wind and rain.
Pretty soon “the weather” was the talk of the town in Victorian London. And just like today, people were quick to point out the inaccuracies of the forecast—of which there were many. Nonetheless, weather forecasting had been legitimized as a science. Seeing the social and economic benefits, countries around the world began investing in forecasting infrastructure. Leading scientists engineered instruments that allowed them to closely study and understand the atmosphere. Gradually, predictions became more accurate.
Modern forecasting came into being with the development of Numerical Weather Prediction (NWP), a complex process in which computers process an enormous amount of data and apply it to computer models in order to generate predictions. Today, some of the most powerful computers on earth are devoted to processing such data.
Of course, advanced technology offers no guarantee that forecasts are always spot on. If you’ve ever wondered why that is, check out the next post to get some insight straight from a meteorologist.