Weather is one of those magical subjects that almost everyone feels comfortable talking about no matter where they and no matter to whom they are speaking. It affects one’s mood in both a negative and positive fashion and its effects have been felt throughout history. It is a world unifying factor that is completely beyond the control of anyone. As compelling as weather has been throughout history little has been known about it until very recently. Now all that has changed as technology is opening new discoveries every day but, despite little knowledge, the study of the weather, meteorology, still has an interesting history.
Meteorology affects us in a variety of different and diverse ways. For example, excessive rain or snow fall can result in flooding, transportation difficulties, washed out crops, and the loss of human and animal life. Conversely, a drought can result in water shortages, crop failure, and uncontrolled fire and brush fires. Extended periods of such events can lead to population shifts, extreme economic hardship, and even political disputes. Throughout history weather has had profound effect upon the destiny of mankind, yet, until very recently little was known about it but weather and the study of it, meteorology, has become to be better understood.
The word meteorology has its origins in the Greek language. The Greek word meteoron refers to anything that is related to the sky. Thus, the suffix meteor reappears throughout scientific language in reference to various atmospheric phenomena: electro meteors — electrical phenomena like lightning; photo meteors — optical phenomena like halos, mirages, rainbows; hydrometeors — rain, snow, clouds, fog; and litho meteors — sand, dust, smoke.
In ancient cultures, cultures that were heavily dependent on the weather because of their reliance on farming to sustain themselves, meteorology did not exist as a discipline. They lacked the technology needed to measure and analysis events. The men who were interested in the weather and its effects did so through a combination of astronomy, mythology and superstition. As meteorology has developed in modern times it has focused on the typical weather patterns such as tornadoes, rain and snow storms, temperature variances and so forth. As an outgrowth of these observations meteorologists have attempted to explain the physical basis for these occurrences.
The first meteorologists were the Greeks. In line with their interest in almost everything the Greeks began their interest in meteorology as early as the 7th century B.C. As one would expect, the Greeks closely associated the differences in weather with the movement of the stars and planets. In addition to the movement of the stars and planets the Greeks attributed control of the weather to their various gods. As a result, the first meteorologists were priests and shamans whose major tasks were to somehow appease the gods so that adverse weather could be averted. Often times, the very fate of the priests and shamans depended upon their perceived ability to appease the gods.
One of the gods involved in the Greek study of the weather was Zeus, the ruler of the heavens. As the ruler of the heavens, Zeus controlled the clouds, rain and thunder. Zeus had two brothers, Poseidon, who was the god of the sea and shores, and Hades, who ruled the underworld. These three gods plus the sun god Helios and the wind god Aeolus were the gods that the Greek priests had to satisfy but due to the Greeks relaxed attitude toward religion they placed little responsibility for weather developments at the feet of their priests. Instead, the Greeks preferred to take a more rational approach to the weather.
As indicated earlier, Greek interest in the weather and what would eventually develop into meteorology began with Thales in the 7th century B.C. Thales, his contemporaries and those following him made very few contributions to the study of meteorology but their interest did spark further inquiry.
The first serious inquiry into the study of meteorology was done by the philosopher Aristotle (Frisinger, 1973). Aristotle, writing in 340 B.C., published his theories about meteorology in a thesis entitled aptly, “Meteorologica.” In his thesis, Aristotle explained the world in terms of four elements (earth, wind, fire and water) and argued that the elements were distinct and arranged in four layers but that they could be mingled. In the seminal work, Aristotle attempted to coordinate all the information that existed at that point in history relative to the weather and organize it in a philosophical and speculative manner. In doing so, he make many deductions, some eventually proven to be wrong while some were right, but what was significant about his efforts was that he was the first to attempt to explain weather in a rational manner. For his efforts Aristotle has been recognized as the founder of meteorology. Interestingly, following Aristotle’s efforts no one added anything to the study of meteorology for nearly 2000 years.
The first significant contribution to the study of meteorology following Aristotle was made by a German clergyman named Nicholas deCusa. DeCusa, in 1450, designed a crude method of measuring relative humidity by hanging out some wool over night and discovering that the wool would be heavier the following morning. This discovery and the wool used by DeCusa was the first crude example of a meteorological instrument. A few years later, a German mathematician, Leon Alberti, published the results of a finding where he argued that the moisture in the air could be measured by comparing the weight of a dry sponge before and after being exposed to the air (Jacobson, 2005).
Alberti’s findings provided some inspiration to Leonardo DaVinci to design two hygrometers some fifty years later. DaVinci’s hygrometers, deigned to measure relative humidity, were extremely primitive but were the first instruments specifically designed for use in meteorology and led to a renewed interest in meteorology. DaVinci was also the first person to design a workable weathervane to measure wind direction.
The famous physicist, Galileo, made his contribution to meteorology around 1593 with his experiments with gases and liquids (Doak, 2005). Galileo discovered that gases and liquids expanded when heated and this discovery led to the first thermometer. Like DaVinci’s work with the hygrometer, Galileo’s thermometer was simple in concept but functional. In fact, its design has enjoyed a recent resurgence as a novelty device.
The mid and lates 1600’s witnessed an explosion in meteorological instrument development and theory. An Italian physicist Evangelista Torricelli invented the barometer which allowed for the measurement of air pressure. Torricelli had noticed that air pressure changes as the weather changed and with the invention of the barometer expanded the ability of meteorologists to predict when weather might be changing. Using Torricelli’s barometer French mathematicians Rene Descartes and Blaise Pascal offered the theory that atmospheric pressure decreased with increased altitude and Italian Francesco Eschinardi discovered that a wetted thermometer cooled. Eschinardi’s discovery led to the eventual development of the psychrometer which became the simplest method of finding relative humidity. Edmund Halley (famous for the discovery of a comet later named for him) made the suggestion that air is heated every day by the sun rising and also that natural winds are caused by air flowing in to replace air that has risen. Corresponding theoretical work and experimentation was provided by Edme Marriotte and Robert Hooke on hypsometry which is the precise measurement of altitudes; Robert Boyle on gases; and, George Hadley and Jean LeRond d’Alembert on atmospheric circulation.
The first significant contribution of the 18th century was the development of the mercury thermometer by German physicist Gabriel Daniel. Daniel’s device used the Fahrenheit scale as it basis of measurement. Following Daniel’s development, British meteorologist George Handley in 1735 offered the theory that the earth’s rotation influenced the tropical winds and, in 1742, Swedish astronomer Anders Celsius developed the centigrade temperature scale.
Due to the presence of new measurement devices and an increased interest in science, in general, the late 1700’s enjoyed the establishment of organized attempts at daily weather observation and measurement. In was during this time that the scientific community began taking daily measurements of air pressure, moisture, and wind speed in an effort to make some predications as to the weather. As an outgrowth of these efforts attempts were then made to explain the occurrence of certain weather phenomena.
During this time the French chemist Antoine Laurent Lavoisier may have become the first weatherman when he stated: “It is almost possible to predict one or two days in advance, within a rather broad range of probability, what the weather is going to be; it is even thought that it will not be impossible to publish daily forecasts, which would be very useful to society (Poirier, 1996).”
Lavoisier, who is claimed by many to be the father of chemistry and was, interestingly, one of the leaders of the French Revolution, proved to be a man far in advance of his time. His prediction that daily forecasts would become a part of our culture did not occur until well into the twentieth century but, even in the 18th century, he was able to see the possibilities. Publications like the “Farmer’s Almanac” attempted to do what Lavoisier predicted but a true scientific approach did not emerge until modern times (Geiger, 1818).
World wide concern for weather forecasting was initiated because of the severe damage that was suffered by the French fleet during the Crimean War (1853-56) (Royle, 2000). The damage caused the French fleet caused concern throughout the western world relative to weather forecasting and immediate attempts were made to increase weather awareness through the exchange of information via the use of a new telecommunication device: the telegraph.
The telegraph proved to be a valuable tool for meteorologists who were suddenly able to communicate with each other all over the world. Now through the old system of observation could be coordinated with the telegraph to relay information between different locations and warnings as to the existence and severity of weather could be exchanged within minutes where once it took days and months. Other technological improvements such as electricity, battery powered radios, and eventually airplanes increased the availability of information leading to a greater degree of accuracy.
Occurring simultaneously with these technological improvements was the development of a field of science known as thermodynamics. Thermodynamics, which involve the study of the energy exchanged between physical systems such as heat or work, had been studied for some time but it was not until the late nineteenth century that the results were applied to meteorology. Scientists involved in the field of thermodynamics such as Vilhelm and Jacob Bjerknes contributed formulas that had applications that could be used to forecast changes in weather conditions and meteorologists quickly grasped the opportunity (Lewis, 2007).
In the mid twentieth century Lavoisier’s prediction of daily forecasts came true. The advent of new telecommunication devices and advances in science led to increased interest in weather and the relaying of information related to weather to the general public. Whereas in the early days of meteorology the primary concern was on observing and measuring the weather forecasting has become the main concern today. The media in its various forms has made weather forecasting a 24/7 activity with an entire television network dedicated to that purpose and as Lavoisier predicted it is now possible to predict the weather within one or two days ( and beyond) with reasonable certainty.
Forecasting has become the primary function of meteorology. The function of measuring the weather and examining its effects on our environment has been taken over by the science of climatology. Meteorology has developed to the point where it is responsible for forecasting and advising society has to what to expect as to weather conditions. In the United States this function has developed into a sophisticated industry that is heavily supported by the government.
The United States government established the National Weather Service by an act of Congress in 1870. Lacking the sophisticated equipment available today the agency was limited. Because it was originally placed under the direction of the War Department, the full extent of the Service’s activities was to place military personnel at stations throughout the country and reporting back to Washington, D.C. with the results (Bradford, 2001). Full scale forecasting was at a minimum but it was a beginning.
From its humble beginnings the National Weather Service has grown to an organization that now has over 5,000 employees. It is now a civilian organization and has been incorporated into the larger National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. With its new technology and extensive organization the National Weather Service is capable of providing wide scale weather forecasting services that enables society to better prepare for pending weather problems.
The technology available today for meteorologists would be beyond the imagination of early meteorologists. Satellites, weather balloons, radar, and computer software make weather forecasting a much different operation than when rudimentary equipment like hygrometers, barometers and thermometers were all that was available. Still, even with all this technology, absolutely accurate forecasting is still not available.
The present radar system available for meteorologists is known as the Doppler System. The Doppler system utilizes microwave signals that enable forecasters to measure the velocity of storms as they approach and the amount of potential moisture contained therein. By being provided with this information forecasters are able to predict with far more certainty the severity of storms.
Satellite technology has also proven to be a valuable part of the modern meteorologist’s forecasting tools (Stanley Q. Kidder, 1995). Used in conjunction with computer software that can use the satellite data to create hypothetical weather conditions forecasters are able to examine potential weather hazards before they occur. Satellites are also capable of providing information regarding infrared measurements of temperature and moisture in selected areas, snow cover, the development and size of ice fields, the movement of icebergs, deforestation, and drought conditions. All of this information can be updated almost instantly allowing meteorologists to remain current.
Despite the tremendous improvements and technological changes that are available to meteorologists today human beings and animals still lose their lives to the effects of adverse weather. Earthquakes, floods, mudslides, floods, tornadoes, and blizzards still occur. Science in general, and meteorologists specifically, may be better able to forecast what is to occur but they are still not able to control the weather so as to avoid them.
Concern over the weather was once a localized problem. Over the years, however, it has developed from being a local concern to being a national concern and now, because of the process of globalization, it has become an international concern. Modern telecommunications, modern technology, and the internet have made the exchange of information instantaneous and now weather alerts, atmospheric conditions, and moment by moment climate changes can be relayed all over the world. Meteorology has become an international process and this can only serve to make the forecasting more expedient and efficient. Whether these developments will ever affect our ability to control the weather remains to be seen but it surely has allowed society to be better prepared for the weather that can be foreseen.
In a field that has been altered substantially by technological advances future changes can be anticipated. What those changes may be or how they will affect our lives remains a mystery.
Bradford, M. (2001). Scanning the Skies: A History of Tornado Forecasting. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.
Doak, R.S. (2005). Galileo: Astronomer and Physicist. Mankanto, MN: Compass Point Books.
Frisinger, H.H. (1973). Aristotle’s Legacy in Meteorology. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 198-204.
Geiger, P. (1818). Farmers Almanac. Lewiston, ME: Almanac Publishing Company.
Jacobson, M.Z. (2005). Fundamentals of Atmospheric Modeling 2nd ed. . New York: Cambridge University Press.
Lewis, C.J. (2007). Heat and Thermodynamics: A Historical Perspective. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood.
Poirier, J.P. (1996). Antoine-Laurent de Laviisier. Retrieved February 21, 2011, from History of Science: http://historyofscience.free.fr/Lavoisier-Friends/a_chap1_lavoisier.html
Royle, T. (2000). Crimea: The Great Crimean War, 1854-1856. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Stanley Q. Kidder, T.H. (1995). Satellite Meteorology: An Introduction. Maryland Heights, MO: Academic Press.
History and Development of the Field of Meteorology
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