The long history of weather forecasting and weather mapping shows that access to good data can help us make better choices in our own lives. Confidence in weather has made our communities, our travels and our commerce safer – and so has climate science.
Two hundred years ago, the few people who studied the weather considered any atmospheric phenomenon to be a “meteor”. The term, referring to Aristotle’s “Meteorologica”, essentially meant “strange thing in the sky”. There were wet things (hail), windy things (tornadoes), light things (auroras), and fiery things (comets). In fact, naturalist Elias Loomis, who was among the first to spot Halley’s Comet when it returned in 1835, believed that storms behaved as cyclically as comets. So, to understand “the laws of storms”, Loomis and the other leaders of the time began to collect observations. Master the elements, they thought, and you could safely navigate the seas, colonize the American West, plant crops with confidence, and ward off disease.
In 1856, Joseph Henry, the first director of the Smithsonian Institution, hung a map of the United States in the lobby of its headquarters in Washington. Each morning, he affixed small colored discs to indicate the country’s weather: white for places with clear skies, blue for snow, black for rain and brown for cloud cover. An arrow on each disc also allowed him to note the direction of the wind. For the first time, visitors could see the weather across the expanding country.
Although simple by today’s standards, the card belied the effort and expense required to pick the right colors every day. Henry persuaded the telegraph companies to transmit weather reports every morning at 10 a.m. Then he outfitted each station with thermometers, barometers, weather vanes, and rain gauges – no small feat on horseback and train, as the instruments often broke in transit.
For longer-term studies of the North American climate, Henry enlisted scholars, farmers, and volunteers from Maine to the Caribbean. Eager to contribute, “Smithsonian observers” took readings three times a day and mailed them to Washington each month. At its peak in 1860, the Smithsonian Meteorological Project had over 500 observers. Then the civil war broke out.
Henry’s ranks shrank by 40% as the men traded barometers for bayonets. Cut telegraph lines and the priority of wartime messages crippled his network. Then in January 1865, a fire in Henry’s office was the fatal blow to the project. All his efforts have been directed towards recovering what has survived. With a leadership vacuum in Washington, citizen scientists have taken over.
After severe weather ravaged the Great Lakes in 1868 and 1869, destroying an estimated 3,000 ships at a cost of $7 million, Augmentation A. Lapham, a self-taught naturalist from Milwaukee, wrote a map to support his call for a service National Storm Warning. . Using data collected by Smithsonian observers in 1859, he tracked a storm moving from northeast Texas to the Atlantic coast over a 48-hour period, “thus allowing many possibilities, with the help of the telegraph, to prepare for its dangers”.
Although the Chicago Tribune ridiculed Lapham, wondering “what practical value” an alerting service would bring “if it takes 10 years to calculate the progress of a storm”, Representative Halbert E. Paine (Wis.), who had studied storms under Loomis, rushed a bill through Congress before the winter recess. In early 1870, a joint resolution establishing a storm warning service under the United States Army Signal Office was passed without debate. President Ulysses S. Grant signed it into law the following week.
Despite the mandate for an early warning system, an aversion to predictions remained. Tax hawks couldn’t justify an investment in misguided forecasts, religious bigots couldn’t stand hubris, and politicians suspicious of a skeptical public couldn’t stand the fallout. In 1893, Secretary of Agriculture J. Sterling Morton cut the salary of one of the country’s top meteorologists, Cleveland Abbe, by 25 percent, making him an example.
As a result, weather watchers protected themselves. They reported “probabilities” and “indications” but no more than 24 hours in advance. The word “tornado” was verboten for fear of inciting panic. And although observers predicted the great Galveston hurricane 1,900 days before it made landfall, Willis L. Moore, head of what became the US Weather Bureau, declined to issue a storm warning for the Texas. By the time the storm had passed, 8,000 people had died.
While Moore did not face the consequences of his dereliction of duty, the Weather Bureau’s hurricane forecasting methods gradually improved as the network expanded and technologies like radio emerged. The advent of aviation increased the understanding of the upper atmosphere; military research led to civilian weather radar, first deployed at Washington National Airport in 1947. In the 1950s, computers were ushering in the future of numerical prediction. Meanwhile, public skepticism has dissipated as more people and businesses have found it in their best interests to trust the experts.
In September 1961, a local news crew decided to broadcast live from the Weather Bureau office in Galveston, Texas as Hurricane Carla swept through the Gulf of Mexico. Leading the coverage was a young reporter named Dan Rather. “There’s the eye of the hurricane right there,” he told his audience as the radar scan brought up the invisible. At the time, no one had seen a televised radar weather map before.
Rather realized that for viewers to understand the storm’s size, location, and impending danger, people needed a sense of scale. So he had a meteorologist draw the coast of Texas on a sheet of clear plastic, which was laid over the radarscope instead. Years later, he recalled that when he said “one inch equals 50 miles” you could hear people in the studio gasp. The sight of the approaching buzz persuaded 350,000 Texans to evacuate their homes in what was then the largest weather-related evacuation in US history. In the end, Carla inflicted twice as much damage as Hurricane Galveston 60 years earlier. But with the help of Rather’s impromptu visualization, less than 50 lives were lost.
In other words, weather forecasting wasn’t just good science, it was good communication and visuals.
Visualizing the data has helped the public better understand the weather that shapes their lives, which has empowered them to take action. It also empowers us to see killer storms not as freak events, but as part of something else: a pattern.
The 10 hottest years on record have occurred since Katrina flooded New Orleans in 2005. And as sea surface temperatures have risen, the number of tropical cyclones has increased, along with their size, their strength and saturation. In fact, many of the costliest storms in the world in terms of property damage have occurred since Katrina.
Two hundred years ago, a 10-day forecast would have seemed absurd. Now we can predict whether we will need an umbrella tomorrow or a snowplow next week. Imagine if we planned careers, bought houses, built infrastructure and adopted policy based on 50-year forecasts as regularly as we plan our weeks by weeks.
Unlike our 19th or even 20th century predecessors, we have access to abundant climate data and data visualization that gives us the knowledge to take bold action. What we do with this knowledge is a matter of political will. It may be too late to stop the coming storm, but we still have time to board our windows.