July 17, 2015

A 19th century weather map. Credit: Internet Archive Book Images / Flickr Creative Commons

If there’s a storm on the way, you know about it. Maybe you heard it on the radio, saw it on the news, or – most likely – caught a glimpse of the forecast on your smartphone.

But flashback to the 18th century, and forget meteorologists with their trusted maps. You might have been relying on sayings like, “When clouds appear like rocks and towers, the earth will be washed by frequent showers,” to predict rain – which unsurprisingly, are not that helpful.

Author Peter Moore says that two centuries ago, weather was nothing short of a mystery. Storms would roll in with little warning and wreak havoc on those blindsided by the weather. Even the thought of a forecast was unimaginable: When a member of the British parliament suggested the possibility of predicting the weather a day in advance, he was greeted by a unanimous response: laughter.

“When you get to the 1800s, the sky still remains a theater of chaos. It was described as an unknowable blue wilderness… It was chaotic, people had no framework to understand what was to come," explains Moore.

But early in the 1800s, some radical scientists began to tame the chaos.

A young ship commander in the British Navy, Sir Francis Beaufort, sailed through South America, frequently updating a weather journal along the way. Beaufort devised various forms of shorthand notation – one of which was a scale measuring the wind that has since been dubbed the Beaufort scale and adopted on a large scale. 

Later in the 1830s, people started to recognize patterns in the weather. But the real breakthrough was the invention of the telegraph. Invented by Samuel Morse, the telegraph allowed long-distance communication through the transmission of electrical signals.

The ability to communicate and pool information to create weather maps had a much greater impact than any one instrument could have.

“In just a few decades, you’re going form a place where you’re looking at the behavior of animals and the appearance of the sky, and then all of the sudden seeing the whole atmosphere as one in big weather charts," adds Moore.

But the predictions were just that, predictions. Sometimes they were wrong, and those false warnings could have severe consequences. For example, if storm predictions warranted precautions – meaning that a boat carrying manufactured goods might delay its voyage — and the storm never came, a small fortune could be lost.

While our forecasts aren’t perfect today, thankfully they are more reliable. Who do we have to thank for our daily weather news? In part, Admiral Robert FitzRoy.

In the 1860s, FitzRoy started a department of the British government dedicated to meteorology. He issued storm warnings to the coast, particularly aimed at ships setting out to sea.

But, Moore says, he realized the public could benefit as well, and he passed the forecast on to the newspapers for mass publication. And so the modern weather forecast was born.

You can still try to go by sayings like "Clear moon, frost soon,” to predict the weather. But, if you really want to know whether or not to pack that umbrella, check the forecast and thank FitzRoy.

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Peter Moore, climate, weather, climate change, history, Green

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