Stormwatch

By | June 8, 2015

One afternoon, a couple of weeks ago, I was deciding whether to go for my afternoon run, keeping an eye on my iPhone’s weather app, trying to gauge the ETA of an approaching thunderstorm. There had also been talk of hail which, last year at the same time, was golf ball size and literally totaled a friend of mine’s car. It’s not something I want to be caught out on a running trail in.

You know what they say: everyone talks about the weather, but no one ever does anything about it. But the weather is one of those things that has been the killer app for virtually every new media and communication technology.

Weather forecasting dates back to the Babylonians circa 650 B.C.E., and Aristotle got his feet wet in the subject in Meteorologica. Other ancient Greek, Chinese, and Indian writers also compiled what might more correctly be called “weather lore.” It relied upon observing patterns, such that if a sunset was especially red, the next day would be sunny. And so on. (In a similar vein, when I see Jim Cantore in my general vicinity, I head indoors as quickly as possible.)

What is believed to be one of the world’s first true weather reports—and indeed the first work of modern journalism—was The Storm, written by Daniel Defoe and published in 1704. It is an account of the Great Storm of 1703, one of the worst natural disasters ever to hit the south of England. A fierce maelstrom of wind and rain that hit in late November, 1703, it knocked down 2,000 chimneys in London alone, tore the roof off Westminster Abbey, wrecked 700 ships in the Thames—including one-fifth of the Royal Navy—and sent more than 1,000 seamen to Davy Jones’ locker. Coastal towns such as Portsmouth, Defoe wrote, “looked as if the enemy had sackt them and were most miserably torn to pieces.” The Storm combined his firsthand account of the event with those of others’. (He had placed ads looking for witnesses to share their stories.) Defoe also wrote that the wreck of the naval vessels was divine retribution for losing to France and Spain at the beginning of the War of the Spanish Succession. That seems a bit picayune for God, but what do I know?

Defoe was quite a character in his own right. A very prolific writer—mostly pamphlets of the political muckraking type—he caused a great storm of his own with newly crowned Queen Anne and ended up in the pillory and, shortly thereafter, Newgate Prison. Upon his release, he would go on to pioneer economic journalism and, with 1719’s Robinson Crusoe, wrote the first English novel.

The Storm was a weather report, but a past-tense one. It really wasn’t until the advent of the telegraph that weather forecasting really got going, and this was largely because communication was slower than the weather. For example, if I want to know what the weather is going to do in an hour or so, I look at the radar map and see what is happening to the west. If a long line of many-colored thunderstorms is trundling across Syracuse and Utica, chances are it’ll be here shortly. But until the mid-19th century, there was no quick way to get that information.

Two pioneers of weather forecasting were British Navy men. Sir Francis Beaufort was a Rear Admiral in the Royal Navy who invented both the wind scale that bears his name as well as a set of weather notations. In 1831, Beaufort used his influence to intercede on behalf of a young captain named Robert FitzRoy, who was trying to get his ship back after losing a bid for a seat in Parliament. The ship was the HMS Beagle, which FitzRoy had taken command of following the suicide of its previous captain. The mission was to head to Tierra del Fuego, and FitzRoy was looking for an educated traveling companion to break of the boredom of months at sea. He asked Beaufort if he knew anyone. Beaufort did; a man named Charles Darwin. But that’s another story for another time.

In 1854, FitzRoy was appointed chief of a new department to collect weather data at sea, a service designed to help mariners. (This would become today’s Meteorological Office.) In 1859, there was a massive storm that resulted in the wreck of a clipper called the Royal Charter. It was a famous shipwreck at the time (Dickens had written an account of it in The Uncommercial Traveler) but it so affected FitzRoy—who was prone to depressive moments—that he was motivated to figure out how to use all the weather data he had been collecting to make predictions or, to use the phrase he coined, “weather forecasts.” He used the telegraph to collect reports from various places at various times during the day, and would use these reports to issue storm warnings to ports that appeared to be in harm’s way. The first storm warnings began in 1861 and quickly expanded to include a forecast for the next day or two. Utilizing another new communication medium, the newspaper, FitzRoy’s daily weather reports began appearing in The Times in that same year, and began to be syndicated to papers throughout Britain. They became exceedingly popular.

FitzRoy didn’t have a wealth of data to work with, and it’s not like weather forecasting had ever really been attempted in a scientific fashion before, so his forecasts were more than a little hit or miss. When he was really wrong, he would write apologies on the Letters page of the Times. There’s an idea today’s weather forecasters might do well to emulate.

FitzRoy became a bit of a media celebrity, as he was accurate a good chunk of the time. Still, there came the inevitable backlash; haters gotta hate. The scientific community thought he was full of unseasonably hot air, MPs grumbled about the cost of all the telegraphing (the British Government was paying for it), and everyone cursed him out when he made an errant forecast.

The increasing criticism, combined with financial problems and health issues, stirred up his depressive condition and, after one final forecast on April 29, 1865 (thunderstorms over London), he slit his throat with a razor and died.

On this side of the Atlantic, weather forecasting progressed less tragically. In 1871, an astronomer turned meteorologist named Cleveland Abbe was appointed chief meteorologist for the United States Weather Bureau, then part of the Signal Corps. He assembled a team of correspondents who also would avail themselves of the telegraph to feed him information, and he would devise and issue weather forecasts. He would also verify his forecasts after the fact; in his first year of operation, he had verified 69 percent of them, apologizing for the other 31 percent but blaming them on “time constraints.” Uh huh.

As newspapers gained in prominence, weather reports and forecasts played a greater and greater role, and as new media emerged, weather was one of the first things drawn on for content. In 1911, the U.K.’s Meteorological Office began sending weather reports via radio, and in the U.S., Boston radio station WEEI began broadcasting reports in 1925. On television, the BBC experimented with weather broadcasts as early as 1936, but didn’t really get going until after the war. Over here, sometime in the 1940s, James C. Fidler did some nascent TV weather broadcasts in Cincinnati on the DuMont Network. TV weather went high-tech in the late 70s and early 80s when Good Morning America’s John Coleman began using satellite imagery and computer graphics. Coleman would found The Weather Channel in 1982 which was a flop at first, but its launch coincided with the massive build-out of cable television in the 80s and 90s. They also realized they could get more viewers by getting their weather people out from behind desks and into the storms themselves. (It helped that video equipment had become less expensive, more portable, and more rugged.)

Today, instead of looking at an outdoor-mounted thermometer to see what the temperature is, or even turning on the TV, I look at my phone. And if I, for some reason, decide to check out Facebook, people often post screenshots of their iPhone weather app screens, especially last winter. Even on social media, we can’t stop talking about the weather.

Uh oh…is that Jim Cantore coming down the street?

References:

Peter Moore, “The birth of the weather forecast,” BBC, April 30, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-32483678.

“Cleveland Abbe,” Wikipedia, last modified on June 7, 2015, accessed June 8, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cleveland_Abbe.

“Daniel DeFoe,” Wikipedia, last modified on May 21, 2015, accessed June 8, 2015, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_Defoe.

“Robert FitzRoy,” Wikipedia, last modified on May 17, 2015, accessed June 8, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_FitzRoy.

“Weather Forecasting,” Wikipedia, last modified on May 26, 2015, accessed June 8, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weather_forecasting.

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