Curiosity pushes the boundaries of those things in life once considered inexplicable. This curiosity is what leads people to take steps to become more resilient against nature, a powerful mechanism that they cannot control. Humanity felt the need to invent tools to take advantage of time-limited opportunities (e.g., a fish swimming upstream nearby, a rainstorm depositing fresh water for drinking, etc.) and become ready for unpredictable occurrences in close proximity to where they took shelter.
Each of the five distinct human senses has a different observation range. The eyes have an approximately five-kilometer visibility limit at sea level. Safety instincts led people to seek out higher elevations to enhance their visibility even further.
Originally humans were limited to only short-term weather forecasts, typically only while they were waiting under a shelter for a downpour. Their prediction was that such hard rain usually does not last very long. This limited knowledge might come from the combination of their basic observations through looking at the clouds and a material lack of scientific information available at the time. Humans became more weather-sensitive because of the development of agriculture, which required cultivation in the correct season and temperature.
It is believed that the first animal-based weather predictions were conducted in the 15th century by people in Germany and Switzerland who looked at a frog’s behaviors in a jar with a small pond and a ladder. They believed that if the frog attempted to climb the ladder rain would come, but if the frog stayed in the pond the weather was stable.
Public weather forecasting began with early civilizations, which used observations of reoccurring astronomical and meteorological events to help monitor season changes. For example, the Babylonians tried to predict short-term weather changes based on the appearance of clouds and optical phenomena such as halos, in addition to astrological assumptions. Chinese astronomers developed a lunisolar calendar that divides the year into 24 seasons, each one associated with a festival, based on what type of weather would come.
Ancient weather forecasting methods usually relied on observed patterns of events, also referred to as pattern recognition. It was observed that if the sunset was particularly red, the following day often brought fair weather. In New Testament times, Jesus himself also referred to deciphering local weather patterns, connecting a red sky at night with fair weather and the same hue in the morning with storms.
The ancient Greeks invented the term meteorology, which means the study of atmospheric disturbances or meteors. Aristotle tried to explain the weather through the interaction of earth, fire, air, and water. Hippocrates’ work On Airs, Waters, and Places became a medical classic, linking good health with favorable weather conditions. The opening of his work begins with the advice that those who wish to investigate medicine must first begin with an understanding of the seasons and weather.
The Renaissance period led scientists to invent different tools for making more useful observations after being stuck with only dogmatic knowledge for centuries: Leonardo da Vinci designed an instrument for measuring humidity called a hygrometer; later, Galileo Galilei invented the thermometer and his student, Evangelista Torricelli, came up with the barometer for measuring air pressure; Francis Ronalds invented the camera. With these tools, people were enabled to monitor the atmosphere without the implicit limitations of the senses.
Isaac Newton accurately described the atmosphere through physics and mathematics. His principles form the foundation of all computer analyses and predictions about weather. Despite this progress, a belief persisted among many that the weather was completely chaotic. When one MP suggested in the House of Commons that recent advances in scientific theory might soon allow them to know the weather in London “twenty-four hours beforehand”, the House roared with laughter.
Predicted wind strength was important because of its use by sailors. Inaccurate predictions around storms (or the lack thereof) ultimately cost thousands of lives within this group. The Meteorological Department of the Board of Trade was founded as a chart depot, intended to reduce sailing times with better wind charts. Weather charts make it easier to visualize the atmosphere in motion. In the process of researching the causes of storms, one influential theory argued that storms occur along unstable fault lines between hot and cold air masses. Therefore, monitoring hot and cold air masses is essential to predict storms.
Robert FitzRoy was captain of the HMS Beagle. The ship had a special guest, Charles Darwin, on a famous circumnavigation in the 1830s. FitzRoy was supposed to be analyzing years of data about wind, collected by Britain’s naval fleet. Weather watchers had been making predictions about which way the wind would blow for centuries. FitzRoy, with his teacher, Francis Beaufort, both British naval officers, began working on the new science of meteorology in the 1840s. Beaufort developed the wind force scale, which would later become known as the Beaufort scale.
FitzRoy was one of the first people to try to make weather prediction into somewhat of a science. He retired from the Navy in 1851, and was elected to Britain’s preeminent scientific community, the Royal Society, with the support of Darwin. A storm in 1859 that caused the loss of the Royal Charter inspired Robert FitzRoy to develop charts to allow predictions to be made, which he called “forecasting the weather”. He published the first-ever weather forecast in The Times in 1861.
He wrote a few years later that meteorology could be utilized with a barometer, two or three thermometers, some training and attentive observation. With these tools, FitzRoy was able to predict when and where a storm would hit. After inventing the electric telegraph, FitzRoy was able to start gathering real-time weather data, wind, temperature and air pressure from the coasts at his London office. If he thought a storm was imminent, he could telegraph a port where a drum was raised in the harbor. He prepared an air pressure-temperature chart.
In winter, the rise of the barometer presages frost. In wet weather, if the mercury rises high and remains so, expect continued fine weather in a day or two. In wet weather, if the mercury rises highly suddenly, fine weather will not last long.
FitzRoy began to face pressure on all sides, both from those angry about inaccurate reports and those simply irritated -in particular, fishing fleet owners were upset about losing business when their fishermen refused to head out to sea in the wake of his unfavorable prediction- that he was predicting bad weather at all. He faced skepticism and mockery, then suffered from depression, and this, coupled with longstanding health and financial concerns and the stresses of running the Meteorological Office, led him to commit suicide in 1865.
Despite pushback, these weather forecasts soon became a quirk of this brave new Victorian society. Their appeal instantly stretched beyond just fishermen and sailors. Organizers of country fairs, fetes and flower shows obsessed over them. They had a particular appeal for the horse racing classes, who used the predictions to help them pick their outfits or lay their bets.
The first computerized weather forecast was performed in 1950. Practical use of numerical weather prediction began in 1955, spurred by the development of programmable electronic computers. The US launched TIROS (Television Infrared Observational Satellite), the first successful weather satellite, in April 1960. Rather than needing to use a weather balloon, which transmits ground air pressure, temperature, humidity and wind speed, using TIROS made visual observation possible. Later, radar and satellite observations of local atmospheric conditions are processed and displayed rapidly by computers to project weather several hours in advance. Radar of various types can be used to detect large hailstones, the heavy load of raindrops, the relatively clear region of rapid updraft, and even the rotation of a tornado.
The commander of Apollo 11 spacecraft, Neil Armstrong, became the first to set foot on the moon as a weather-dependent historical event in 1969.
Weather warnings are important forecasts because they are used to protect life and property. Forecasts based on temperature and precipitation are critical for agriculture, and therefore for traders within commodity markets. Temperature forecasts are used by utility companies to estimate upcoming demand.
Weather forecasting is also a meaningful part of the economy. The US spent approximately $5.1 billion in 2009 on weather forecasting, producing benefits estimated at six times this investment. Despite advanced prediction, Hurricane Katrina still resulted in an estimated $125 billion (0.9% of US 2005 GDP) of damage. Unlike hurricanes, volcanic eruptions are less predictable and they could cause more persistent damages for economic activities, especially agriculture.
The butterfly effect describes the phenomena where a small change in one state can result in large differences in a later state. The term is closely associated with the work of mathematician and meteorologist Edward Norton Lorenz. This famous effect is an example of chaos theory, a simple model of heat convection -which is used to predict temperature in the near future- that possesses intrinsic unpredictability. With the effects of climate change, many regions have started to lose their relatively stable weather regime. Climate disruption would make it even worse. Just like climate disruption, any kind of event that affects public health, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, would cause the economy to contract materially as a result of its obfuscation of predictive capabilities.
When weather conditions are unpredictable, heavy snow, rain or widespread hail can bring transportation and commerce to a stand-still, as well as cause flooding in low-lying areas and power outages. Excessive heat or cold waves can sicken or kill those with inadequate utilities, and droughts can impact water usage and destroy vegetation. Wildfires, because of excessive heat, increase deforestation, which leads to more air pollution. Bad air quality conditions alone could decrease life expectancy by 3.5 years.
Weather conditions can also make people more productive, eliminating the potential cognitive distractions that come along with good weather. Countries that do not have pleasant weather conditions outside for humans have more people indoors, resulting in increased creativity and innovation.
Keeping weather predictable is instrumental to ensuring the world remains inhabitable. Therefore, each development, product and consumption pattern’s long-term environmental impact should be evaluated carefully before mass adoption. The damage resulting from harming the environment repeatedly could be irreversible at some point. Remember, a butterfly can start a storm.
In memory of all of the unknown people who lost their lives for science.