Whither Weather 1

We’ve got the technology, but Mother Nature controls the weather. Get used to it

Back in September, as Hurricane Floyd raced up the eastern coast of North America, Globe and Mail columnist Rick Salutin wrote: “I have seen the future of the news and it is weather.”

He pointed out something that we had all noticed: flip through the channels, from CTV to CNN to ABC to CBC or almost anywhere else, “live Floyd coverage” was almost guaranteed. As Salutin said, it was a case of “all Floyd, all the time,” as the media prepared for the hurricane to come ashore and wreak havoc.

As it turned out, though Floyd was bad (it killed 14 people), it wasn’t as bad as predicted. This left many people observing that, yet again, the weather forecasters had got it wrong. We have all become increasingly obsessed with knowing about the weather, and we remain just as sceptical about the prediction skills of the forecasters.

This uneasy relationship has a long history.

Yesterday

Back in February, 1870, US President Ulysses S. Grant signed a bill to create a US weather service. Its objective was “to warn of storms on the Great Lakes and on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.” One year later, the new body issued its first warning, advising the Great Lakes area that some bad winter weather was on its way.

History doesn’t tell us if the forecast was correct.

Today

Since then, governments around the world have invested billions of dollars to establish meteorology departments and private industry has jumped into the fray as well.

The weather industry is a big one, feeding a weather-hungry public with a steady stream of updates. Weatherman David Phillips, author of the best-selling book, The Day Niagara Falls Ran Dry!, likes to point out that nine out of every 10 Canadians start their day with a weather forecast (in their paper or on the news).

Never before has the average citizen had so much weather information at his or her disposal. Entire television channels (The Weather Network in Canada and the Weather Channel in the US) are devoted to the subject, 24 hours a day. The Weather Network, now 10 years old, is carried across Canada on more than 1,000 cable systems and on satellite, and is watched by between five and eight million people every week.

Specialty channels aren’t alone in the field. Constantly updated weather forecasts are found on other TV stations, radio stations, in newspapers and in specialized briefing papers.

We can now sit in our homes and access countless satellite images, up-to-the-minute radar reports, raw weather data, temperature sensors, reports on cloud-top height, weather commentary, three-day forecasts, five-day forecasts, monthly forecasts! We do so by tapping into information generated by a massive worldwide weather infrastructure.

And what an infrastructure it is! Huge resources around the planet are devoted to measuring and analyzing weather data in order to create all those forecasts. Satellites, radar, weather buoys at sea, weather balloons and planes, and weather stations… Perhaps no other area of human endeavour involves such a highly integrated global matrix of interconnected measuring devices, each of them feeding an ever-increasing stream of data into computers and supercomputers, each of which in turn crunches out the next forecast.