The day – Confidence in the weather has saved lives. The same is possible for climate science.
2021 is shaping up to be a historically busy hurricane season. And while the damage and destruction was severe, there was a saving grace – that the National Weather Service was mostly correct in their forecast.
Using remote sensing, people on the Gulf Coast knew how to prepare for the “deadly flood”, “urban flooding” and “potentially catastrophic wind damage” that the weather service predicted for Hurricane Ida . Meteorologists determined the strength, thrust and location of Ida’s landing while anticipating that a hot vortex would cause her to intensify too quickly to safely evacuate New Orleans. Then, as its remains swirled northeast, reports warned of tornadoes and torrential rains. Millions of people have taken notice and lives have been saved. While many people have died, their deaths are due to infrastructure and policy failures, not predictions.
The long history of weather forecasting and weather mapping shows that having access to good data can help us make better choices in our own lives. Confidence in meteorology has made our communities, our travel and our commerce safer – and the same is possible for climate science.
Two hundred years ago, the few who studied the weather thought of any atmospheric phenomenon as a “meteor”. The term, referring to Aristotle’s “Meteorologica”, essentially meant “strange thing in the sky”. There were wet things (hail), windy things (tornadoes), bright things (aurora), and fiery things (comets). In fact, naturalist Elias Loomis, who was among the first to spot Halley’s Comet on its return in 1835, believed that storms behave as cyclically as comets. So, to understand “the laws of storms,” Loomis and the other leading meteorologists of the time began to collect observations. Master the elements, they thought, and you could sail the seas safely, colonize the American West, plant crops with confidence, and ward off disease.
In 1856, Joseph Henry, the first director of the Smithsonian Institution, hung a map of the United States in the lobby of his headquarters in Washington. Each morning, he affixed small colored disks to show the country’s weather: white for places with clear skies, blue for snow, black for rain and brown for cloud cover. An arrow on each disc also allowed him to note the direction of the wind. For the first time, visitors could view the weather across the expanding country.
While simple by today’s standards, the map belied the effort and expense of selecting the right colors every day. Henry persuaded the telegraph companies to send weather reports every morning at 10 a.m. Then he equipped each station with thermometers, barometers, weather vanes and rain gauges.
For longer-term studies of the North American climate, Henry enlisted academics, farmers, and volunteers from Maine to the Caribbean. Eager to contribute, the “Smithsonian Watchers” took readings three times a day and mailed them to Washington each month. At its peak in 1860, the Smithsonian Meteorological Project had more than 500 observers. Then civil war broke out.
Henry’s ranks thinned by 40% as the men traded barometers for bayonets. Cut telegraph lines and the priority of war messages crippled his network. Then, in January 1865, a fire in Henry’s office dealt the fatal blow to the project. All his efforts were directed towards the recovery of what survived. With a leadership vacuum in Washington, citizen scientists have taken over.
After severe weather conditions ravaged the Great Lakes in 1868 and 1869, wrecking about 3,000 ships at a cost of $ 7 million, Increase A. Lapham, a self-taught naturalist from Milwaukee, drew up a map to support his appeal. to a national storm warning service. . Using data collected by Smithsonian observers in 1859, he tracked a storm stretching from northeast Texas to the Atlantic coast over a 48-hour period, “thus leaving ample opportunity, to the ‘help the telegraph, to prepare for its dangers’.
Although the Chicago Tribune scoffed at Lapham, wondering “what practical value” a warning service would bring “if it takes 10 years to calculate the progress of a storm,” Representative Halbert E. Paine of Wisconsin, who had studied storms under Loomis, rushed a bill to Congress before the winter recess. In early 1870, a joint resolution establishing a storm warning service under the aegis of the US Army Signal Office was passed without debate. President Ulysses S. Grant promulgated it the following week.
Despite the mandate of an early warning system, an aversion to predictions remained. Tax hawks couldn’t justify investing in flawed predictions, religious fanatics couldn’t stand the pride, and politicians wary of a skeptical public couldn’t stand the fallout. In 1893, Secretary of Agriculture J. Sterling Morton cut the salary of one of the country’s top meteorological scientists, Cleveland Abbe, by 25%, making him an example.
As a result, the weather observers protected themselves. They reported “probabilities” and “indications” but no more than 24 hours in advance. The word “tornado” was banned for fear of inciting panic. And although observers predicted Hurricane Great Galveston 1900 days before it made landfall, Willis L. Moore, head of what had become the US Weather Bureau, declined to issue a storm warning for Texas. . By the time the storm passed, 8,000 people had died.
While Moore suffered no consequences for his dereliction of duty, the Weather Bureau’s hurricane forecasting methods gradually improved as the network grew and technologies like radio emerged. The advent of aviation made it possible to better understand the upper atmosphere; military research led to the civilian weather radar, first deployed at Washington National Airport in 1947. By the 1950s, computers ushered in the future of numerical prediction. Meanwhile, public skepticism faded as more people and businesses saw it in their best interests to trust the experts.
In September 1961, a local news crew decided to broadcast live from the Weather Bureau’s office in Galveston, Texas, as Hurricane Carla swept through the Gulf of Mexico. At the head of the cover was a young journalist named Dan Rather. “There’s the eye of the hurricane right there,” he told his audience as the radar scan highlighted the invisible. At the time, no one had seen a televised radar weather map before.
Rather, I realized that in order for viewers to understand the size, location, and impending danger of the storm, people needed a sense of the scale. So he asked a meteorologist to draw the Texas coast on a transparent plastic sheet, which he put on the radar instead. Years later, he remembered that when he said “one inch is 50 miles” he could hear people in the studio gasping. The sight of the approaching buzz persuaded 350,000 Texans to evacuate their homes in what was then the largest weather-related evacuation in US history. In the end, Carla did twice as much damage as Hurricane Galveston 60 years earlier. But with the help of the impromptu visualization of Rather, less than 50 lives were lost.
In other words, weather forecasting was not just about good science, but also about good communication and visuals.
The data visualization helped the public better understand the weather that shaped their lives, which enabled them to take action. It also gives us the power to see deadly storms not as anomalous events, but as part of something else: a pattern.
The 10 hottest years on record have been since Katrina flooded New Orleans in 2005. And as sea surface temperatures have risen, so have the number of tropical cyclones, their size, their strength. and their saturation, have increased. In fact, many of the costliest storms in the world in terms of property damage have occurred since Katrina.
Two hundred years ago, a 10-day forecast would have seemed absurd. Now we can predict if we’ll need an umbrella tomorrow or a snowplow next week. Imagine if we were planning careers, buying homes, building infrastructure, and adopting policies based on a 50-year forecast as regularly as we plan our weeks by five days.
Unlike our 19th or even 20th century predecessors, we have access to a lot of climate data and data visualization that gives us the knowledge to take bold action. What we do with this knowledge is a matter of political will. It may be too late to stop the coming storm, but we still have time to put up our windows.
Oliver Uberti is a former design editor for National Geographic and the co-author and designer of three critically acclaimed map and graphics books: “Atlas of the Invisible”, “Where the Animals Go” and “London : The Information Capital “. “