Thursday 30 April 2015

The birth of the weather forecast

Race-goers 1800s

The man who invented the weather forecast in the 1860s faced scepticism and even mockery. But science was on his side, writes Peter Moore.
One hundred and fifty years ago Admiral Robert FitzRoy, the celebrated sailor and founder of the Met Office, took his own life. One newspaper reported the news of his death as a "sudden and shocking catastrophe".
Today FitzRoy is chiefly remembered as Charles Darwin's taciturn captain on HMS Beagle, during the famous circumnavigation in the 1830s. But in his lifetime FitzRoy found celebrity not from his time at sea but from his pioneering daily weather predictions, which he called by a new name of his own invention - "forecasts".
There was no such thing as a weather forecast in 1854 when FitzRoy established what would later be called the Met Office. Instead the Meteorological Department of the Board of Trade was founded as a chart depot, intended to reduce sailing times with better wind charts.
With no forecasts, fishermen, farmers and others who worked in the open had to rely on weather wisdom - the appearance of clouds or the behaviour of animals - to tell them what was coming. This was an odd scenario - that a bull in a farmer's field, a frog in a jar or a swallow in a hedge-row could detect a coming storm before a man of science in his laboratory was an affront to Victorian notions of rational progress.
Early forecasting wit frogs
Early weather prediction, using frogs
Yet the early 19th Century had seen several important theoretical advances. Among them was an understanding of how storms functioned, with winds whirling in an anticlockwise direction around a point of low pressure.
Weather charts, another innovation, made it easier to visualise the atmosphere in motion. One influential theory argued that storms occurred along unstable fault lines between hot and cold air masses, just as we know earthquakes today happen on the boundaries of tectonic plates.
But despite this, the belief persisted among many that weather was completely chaotic. When one MP suggested in the Commons in 1854 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.
Admiral Fitzroy
But FitzRoy was troubled by the massive loss of life at sea around the coasts of Victorian Britain. Between 1855 and 1860, 7,402 ships were wrecked off the coasts with a total of 7,201 lost lives. FitzRoy believed that with forewarning, many of these could have been saved.
After the disastrous sinking of the Royal Charter gold ship off Anglesey in 1859 he was given the authority to start issuing storm warnings.
FitzRoy was able to do this using the electric telegraph, a bewildering new technology that, the Daily News observed, "far outstrips the swiftest tempest in celerity".
With the telegraph network expanding quickly, FitzRoy was able to start gathering real-time weather data 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 harbour. It was, he said, "a race to warn the outpost before the gale reaches them".