The Early Forecasters

It has not been all that long since everyone was a forecaster of one sort or another. Everyone’s livelihood was so closely linked to the weather conditions, they all learned to read the skies, the land, and the sea for the slightest changes. Agriculture, a relatively recent addition to human technology, gave humans a cushion against the day-to-day vagaries of the weather, but it was by no means assurance that food supplies would outlast a climatic crisis. Farmers, fishermen and sailors have always known that their lives depended on good fortune and good weather.

Once nomadic proto-humans spread out beyond the relatively benign climate of the tropics, understanding weather became important to survival. Climate was a driving force behind much human innovation. Our ancestors had to deal with temperature changes, sometimes extreme, with flood and drought, and with a host of other weather conditions inimical to human life. They learned to recognize which clouds represented approaching danger and which clouds did not. They had to recognize the passing of the seasons and relate that to where and when food would be most plentiful.

That being so, folklore about weather is ingrained into human history and weather has been an object of study for thousands of years. Even before the Greeks made a science of meteorology, our remote ancestors studied the weather and noted its patterns. There are still weather adages that people know today, such as “Red sky in the morning, sailor take warning” and many others. There are even some in the Bible. In the Book of Job, written in the 5th century B.C., there are speculations made, such as “Fair weather cometh out of the north.” There is often truth in these saying. The people who developed them may not have understood the science behind what they said, but they were very effective in using the experience of lifetimes to interpret what they saw in the sky.

They used the sky in other ways, too. Humans have watched the skies for millions of years. Stonehenge, built more than 5,000 years ago, tracked the sun to mark the passing of the seasons. For over 8,000 years, the Chinese kept records of star movements for the same reason.

In the last 20 years, researchers recognized that the pyramids of Egypt were laid out to align with the stars of Orion at specific times of the year. (In the thousands of years since the pyramids were built, the earth has moved so the star field looks different than it did then; that’s what caused the long delay in this discovery.) From southernmost South America to northernmost Siberia, every early society on earth had some way of keeping track of the weather and the stars. These were the first forecasters.

The Greeks are credited with getting serious about understanding how weather works. Although they lacked modern scientific tools ands techniques, they still managed to get surprisingly close to the truth about a number of concepts. Thales is considered the father of Greek science and it was he who first put forth theories on how things work. His theories were refined and amended by progressive generations of scientist-philosophers.

Aristotle, a great thinker of his day, brought together the disparate theories from those before him and distilled them into one coherent study. Among other things, he wrote Meteorologica, an encyclopedia of weather theory. His work was the definitive authority on science until the Scientific Revolution began in the 16th century.

Before meteorology emerged as a separate science in the late 1800s, scientists from a wide range of disciplines tinkered in the field and great strides were made in laying the foundations of true meteorology. Torricelli invented the barometer, Decartes used it to measure atmospheric pressure differences, Boyle developed a series of laws based on pressure, and Pascal used the barometer to prove that the atmosphere thins with elevation. And so it goes; each new discovery invites refinement and each refinement paves the way for the next discovery.

Improved instruments enlarged knowledge of weather and improved communications allowed this knowledge to be shared. Communication proved to be an important tool for early forecasters, as it is for modern forecasters. British Vice Admiral Robert Fitzroy, for example, demonstrated this very well in the 1860s.

He established a network of 22 observing stations along the coasts of France and the British Isles. The stations kept in contact via telegraph and he used the amassed data to make storm predictions, the first of their kind. He had quite a mix of stunning successes and equally stunning failures, but he set the model for what could be done for future forecasters.

The science of weather forecasting grew rapidly from these early beginnings. By the beginning of the 20th century, scientists had developed an arsenal of theories on storm development and movement. The “weather type” forecasts gave way to extrapolation techniques, which, in turn, were replaced as the primary tool by mathematical models that improve daily. Scientists from all over the world contributed to the burgeoning collection of information. There are many major contributors, among them, Jakob Bjerknes.

Bjerknes is essentially the father of modern meteorology. He and his colleagues at Norway’s Bergen School of Meteorology used farmers, fishermen, lighthouse keepers, and sailors along their west coast to observe weather and detect approaching storms. They recognized previously undetected patterns in complex weather features and this allowed them to develop the polar front/ air mass concept of storm development.

They also established the norms of color and form for weather features on maps, blue Hs for highs, red Ls for lows, blue lines with triangular pips for cold fronts, green dots for rain, etc. Norwegians are also credited with establishing the norm for plotting weather data on maps and designing the specific formats for weather reports. Modified versions of these are still used today.

Today’s forecaster owes a debt of gratitude to the many generations of people who studied the skies and passed on what they learned. Without them, we would not enjoy now an unprecedented ability to predict weather and protect ourselves against its dangers. No one really knows what future generations will bring to the field, but we do know that their lives will be better for what we do today, just as we know our lives were improved by what our ancestors did before us.

Written by Melody L. Higdon, 14 WS/DOPA