The Weather Machine: How We See Into the Future
© 2019 Andrew Blum
How do we know what the forecast will be? Well, we don’t — yesterday my chances of afternoon rain were supposedly minimal, and yet by the end of it there I was, delivering books under an umbrella! But forecasts are much better than they used to be, to the point that a six-day forecast today is about as good as a two-day forecast thirty years ago. How is that possible? In The Weather Machine, Andrew Blum offers a quick history of how the ‘weather machine’ — a network of observers, scientists, sensors, and computers across the globe — came to be, beginning with one Norwegian’s theories about the physics of weather. It’s not nearly as comprehensive as Tubes, in which Blum traced the physical infrastructure of the internet, and there’s more emphasis on the model than the metal bones of it all, but it has more than enough interest to merit the $2 sale price I picked it up for.
We begin with a discussion of the telegraph, which made the idea of the weather machine possible: for the first time, it was possible to receive instant information about the weather conditions throughout the world, and from these assembled pieces, discern patterns. Observation is only part of the equation, however: key to creating a working weather forecast was a model about how the atmosphere created weather. Enter the mathematicians, and things get complicated indeed. The physical infrastructure continued to develop, spurred by war: Blum notes that we learned to see the entire Earth through means that were created to destroy it. One of the more interesting examples of this is that during World War 2, Germany made several meteorological innovations because of its being cut off from Allied weather information — creating remote devices and planting one in Canada that would autonomously absorb and relay information about temperature, wind, etc — to its weather service for forecasting purposes. Bear in mind, of course, that during wars, the weather is a vital piece of the puzzle, especially where shipping and air operations were concerned.
The Weather Machine is a fun little piece — not a systematic overview of how a forecast is generated, but one that covers enough of the pieces for a reader to go away suitably impressed by the vast concert of ground observers, satellites, and data crunchers.
Isaac’s Storm: A Man, A Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History, Erik Larson. While this is chiefly about the Galveston hurricane of 1900, it featured a lot of background information on the growth of the Weather Bureau.