8/10 (Buy it on Amazon)

Short Summary

The weather forecast that we pull up on our phones is far from simple. It takes a myriad of satellites, observations, and computing power to handle. How we got here, is an interesting story of people trying to predict where battleships would strike, how the weather would look like if a telegraph was sent, and inter-continental strife between economic powers. As we enter a new era of supercomputing, weather forecasts are becoming scarily accurate to many days to weeks out, and this makes diplomacy between nations who need that data and those who produce that data vitally important. Furthermore, as private companies make more forays into using smartphones as digital observers, the data creation process will fall more into risk.

Lessons Learned

I thought this book was a pleasant read over how complex something as banal as the weather would be to predict. I learned a lot of new things—first, that weather observations were a huge asset during times of war (like World War II), and like everything else, war played a huge part in establishing the current way we interpret the weather forecast. Furthermore, I thought that the discussion over how the weather will further exacerbate inequalities between larger nations and poorer nations due to climate change and forecasting power was very nuanced. I thought that there was a very drastic turn from history to application, and I wished he dedicated more of the book to talking about the satellites that Europe used (like Metop versus the GOES-East/West of the USA). I thought that the last chapter, which discussed weather diplomacy, was an interesting note to finish on. I didn’t realize that Thomas Jefferson thought that the weather was vitally important when he signed the Declaration of Independence: I think this book is filled with facts which are surprising, just like the one I mentioned.


“This was a long way past merely watching Sandy’s development through the space-based camera of a satellite, extrapolating its next move. It was a simulation of the global atmosphere, capable of running ahead of time. Amid a lifetime of weather, it all added up to an improbable, nearly inconceivable, prognostication. I understood that we use computer simulations for weather forecasting. But when had they gotten so good?”

“Generally speaking, with each passing decade meteorologists have been able to make that claim one day farther into the future. That means a six-day forecast today is as good as a five-day forecast was a decade ago; a five-day forecast today is as good as a three-day forecast two decades ago; and, most dramatically, today’s six-day forecast is as good as a two-day forecast in the 1970s.”

“But I was also curious about the banal, quotidian weather forecasts I looked at every day—like the ones that said it would rain at four o’clock three days from now and often shocked me by being right.”

“After millennia of wishing, we had wired up the earth: with satellites and instrumented balloons; with thermometers, barometers and anemometers; with supercomputers and a purpose-built telecommunications system to tie it all together, in order to see ahead of time.”

“The weather machine relies on nearly every major invention of the last three centuries, foremost among them Newtonian physics, telecommunications, spaceflight and computing.”

“The ability to forecast the weather is among humanity’s greatest adaptations to life on earth. And there was so much to learn about how it all works.”

“The ability to know the weather in many places at one time was the first step toward knowing the weather in one place at many times, most usefully times in the future. Once the telegraph caught on, meteorologists found their work newly practical, and the field was transformed “from weather science to weather service,” as the historian James Rodger Fleming has put it.”

“A vast observation machine was not enough. What meteorology needed was a new system of understanding—a theory. “Meteorologists can never be satisfied until they have a deeper insight into the mechanics of the atmosphere,” Abbe continued. “Something more is needed than the most perfect organization for observing, reporting and publishing the latest news from the atmosphere. It is not enough to know what the conditions have been and are, but we must know what they will be, and why so.”

“It was Bjerknes who first proposed the idea of calculating the weather—and then, despite massive technological limitations, worked out how to do it.”

“Bjerknes whittled the physics of the atmosphere down to seven equations, which required observations consisting of seven variables: density, pressure, temperature, humidity and wind velocity (as a vector, so it counted as three).”

“He used it to calculate the stresses on masonry dams, with the actual calculations divided among a handful of “computers,” meaning boys. The quickest of them, he reported, could do two thousand operations a week, which Richardson paid for by the penny, docking them for mistakes.”

“their pace of calculation is dictated by an assistant standing on a high pillar who shines on them “a beam of rosy light” or “a beam of blue light,” depending on whether they are running ahead or behind. “In this respect he is like the conductor of an orchestra in which the instruments are slide-rules and calculating machines,” Richardson explained. To imagine a way to deal with the simultaneity of the earth required imagining an edifice in which to do it. What Richardson dreamed was what the contemporary mathematician David Gelernter calls a “mirror world”: a database in space that represents an equivalent space in reality. Richardson’s forecast factory was a kind of anticipatory memory palace.”

“What astonishes me is how thoroughly the forecast factory anticipates the global view at the heart of the weather machine. Even amid the ashes of the Great War, Richardson could see the actual globalism that would define the system as we know it today, both politically and technologically.”

“He returned to Norway in 1917, fifty-five years old, still looking for a practical application for his ideas. The country was the perfect laboratory. The war had severely curtailed the international exchange of observations, all but eliminating western Norway’s storm warning system and threatening its merchant fleets. There were food shortages, which put pressure on the success of the summer’s wheat crop.”

“Adopting the martial language of the era, they referred to these as “fronts”—an idea they extended to describe “polar fronts,” which could be thought of as the battle line between polar and tropical air masses. It was an insight that stuck, with “Bergen School” methods finding their way, over the next generation, deep into universities and weather bureaus across the United States and Europe. Bergen School methods were used in the forecast for the Allied invasion of Normandy, the accuracy of which was a key element of D-Day’s surprise. But for all that, they were not, strictly speaking, theoretical.”

“But Bjerknes’s greatest contribution to meteorology is simple: He showed how the scientific method could be applied to weather forecasting. Each calculation of the weather could be a hypothesis, proven or disproven by the weather (when it actually came). His focus on the intensive collection of observations, and the use of further observations to verify his calculations, showed how the abstractions of his math and the vicissitudes of the weather could be linked.

“Bjerknes saw that weather forecasting is the archetypal example of what scientists call a “prediction problem.” They come in all forms, from trying to predict the transmission of a disease, the behavior of the flame of a Bunsen burner, or the fragmentary trajectory of an explosion. Each can be tracked to the scientific method, with its cycle of hypothesis and verification. But the weather is special in that its predictions need not be constrained to the present or the near future.”

“The Regional Basic Synoptic Network is one component of what’s grandly known as the Global Observing System, which is itself part of what’s even more grandly known as the World Weather Watch.”

“Then there are the wild and remote stations like Jan Mayen, a Norwegian volcanic island way out in the Arctic Ocean, north of Iceland and halfway to Greenland. It has a staff of eighteen people and two dogs and is nearly impossible to visit. (A military cargo plane flew in eleven times a year.)”

“World War II marked the beginning of a transformation of weather observation from a collection of disparate points into a global system—made up of observatories on the ground, in the air and, soon enough, in space. But it happened piece by piece, driven by technological developments and military needs.”

“The day of the TIROS 1 launch, President Eisenhower made a deceptively simple statement: “The earth doesn’t look so big when you see that curvature.” But did he mean it in a spirit of togetherness—it’s a small world after all—or conquest? What seemed to surprise everyone was the extent to which this new view of the whole earth seemed to belong to the whole earth. Yet it arrived coupled with its opposite impulse, the Cold War cleaving of the planet, and the possibility of its annihilation. There was no way to extricate these new weather satellites from the broader geopolitics of the Cold War and the staggering exertions of the superpowers. In a very practical sense, there were few clear distinctions between weather satellites and reconnaissance satellites, or cargo-carrying rockets and intercontinental ballistic missiles. It worked both ways. The military uses justified the meteorological efforts. The military efforts benefited the meteorological uses.”

“There are two categories of weather satellites flying today: geostationary orbiters and polar orbiters. The geostationary, or GEOs, orbit in the same direction as the earth’s rotation, making them appear motionless in the sky. They provide constantly updated information about a single area of the atmosphere. The polar, or low earth orbiters, known as LEOs, fly low and fast. They circle the planet from north to south and south to north, overflying a different geography with each orbit and cutting a pattern around the globe like an orange peeled with a knife. The LEOs measure the atmosphere more precisely but cover the whole earth less often.”

“You know, people are always criticizing the weather predictions,” said Yves Buhler, EUMETSAT’s director of technical and scientific support, when I met him in his sunny corner office in Darmstadt. A French rocket scientist, he was dressed like it: crisp white shirt, spread collar, breast pocket full of fine-tipped pens. “But globally, it has become much more accurate. And it has become much more accurate, also, in the medium range—so a week, two weeks. Why is that? Because the satellite observations are providing a uniform coverage of the earth. There’s no black hole of an area.” The global view is everything.”

“Known as SMAP, a name it shared with a Japanese boy band, it had an unusually narrow function: to measure soil moisture from space. Soil moisture is a funny data point in meteorology. The weather models include it as a variable—but an infrequently updated one, in part because it is so poorly measured. SMAP promised to change that, with two orbiting instruments doing the work of ten million fixed ground-based sensors. It felt to me like a project Bjerknes would appreciate: a bold and audacious attempt at intensified observation of the earth, in the service of a better calculation of the weather.”

“A weather model has an anatomy, a clear and logical separation of parts. A model needs observations of the weather; it needs to know what the weather is, to know what it could be. A model needs what is most easily called physics—a set of equations to describe how the atmosphere evolves (as first described by Bjerknes). And a model needs to put the two together with computation, which Lewis Fry Richardson tried and failed to complete at the Western Front but which is now most often handled by a supercomputer. The success of any model depends on the strength of each, like a three-legged stool. How good are the weather observations coming in? How well is the model able to mathematically calculate their behavior over time? And how quickly can the computer make those calculations?”

“It is as if the observations are correcting the model’s earlier forecast, like a ballroom dancer still learning the steps. The whole process is, as Anderson put it, “nontrivial,” but it’s the secret of every weather model’s success.”

“The more the scientists can improve the data assimilation, the more usable information can be extracted from the observations. The better the data assimilation, the smaller the corrections the model needs to make. But that process can be slow.”

“Here was the dance I’d been hearing about, the pas de deux between the model and reality, one leading, the other following.”

“In July 2015, without any announcement or fanfare, Neilley turned it on: From that day forward, the Weather Company’s forecasting system would no longer depend on humans to share its data with the world.”

“Today’s forecasts are good enough to be actionable, often several days in advance. Which raises a new challenge: If the weather forecast is nearly perfect, what can you do with it? How do you learn to make decisions using it?”

“His observations were not only a scientific project but a political one. All weather measurements are. His thermometer-wielding deputies could use their instruments as the screws of unity. It was a classic Jeffersonian insight, combining the political and the natural, the individual and collective. He recognized that we live on a planet carved up by borders but encased in a borderless atmosphere.”

“Government weather services have a hundred-and-fifty-year history of sharing their data and giving their services away for free. But if observations are being made by private networks and aggregated by the Googles, IBMs or Amazons of the world, that openness can no longer be assumed. The weather machine is based on an idea of international cooperation that has become outmoded. Many of its interdependent parts were based on colonial structures. Now multinational technology corporations are poised to create a new structure of data ownership and exchange. How will the weather machine adapt to a world networked in new ways?”

“Weather diplomacy may be nuanced, but its societal benefits are tangible, to every country on earth. Weather services reduce the human impacts of natural disasters, make transportation safer and more economical, and help use natural resources more sustainably.”

“And yet, the technological winds are blowing against us. The most important weather observations are increasingly collected by the narrow tier of countries that operate satellites. And the most important forecasts are produced by the equally slim group of countries (or groups of countries) that operate weather models. How long can the current system of data exchange among nations hold? How soon might it be supplanted by global technology corporations—themselves often acting like nations? The weather machine is a last bastion of international cooperation. It produces some of the only news that isn’t corrupted by commerce, by advertising, by bias or fake-ness. It is one of the technological wonders of the world. At the beginning of an era when the planet will be wracked by storms, droughts and floods that will threaten if not shred the global order, the existence of the weather machine is some consolation.”

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