Greek astronomer Ptolemy simplified weather as an imaginary line between the equator and poles
quasi-global data record.
In 1872, HMSChallenger, a vessel of the British Royal Navy, undertook a four-year scientific voyage around the world, recording weather data every two hours throughout its journey spanning over 127,000 km. As Paul Edwards, historian at the University of Michigan, put it in his 2010 book A Vast Machine: “This was the 19th century equivalent of a weather satellite: an attempt to observe the entire planet from a single platform using well-calibrated instruments and consistent techniques.”
Alexander Buchan, a Scottish meteorologist, took on the Herculean task of cleaning up the many inconsistencies in the prodigious Challenger data. After seven years of toiling, he published in 1889, the revised data in a book
in the form of 52 beautiful colour maps of global and hemispheric average temperatures, pressures and winds.
For most of the 19th century,however,meteorology remained a hobby for academics and dilettantes alike, as forecasting was a distant dream yet—the science was still in its infancy, and hence inaccurate. Besides,meteorologists didn’t have access to real-time weather data.
The advent of electric telegraphy in the 1850s revolutionised everything, including meteorology. Meteorologists could now share and analyse weather data from across the world. Even though there was little understanding of the complex physics of weather, access to global data was at least a promising starting benchmark to make a calculated forecast.The US set up its first pilot network in 1949.Ten years later, the weather telegraphy network had over 500 weather stations.
By 1900,telegraph networks had mushroomed,and large parts of the world, including the colonies, were now connected by the telegraph. This rich data set, instantly communicated, enabled weather offices to make short-range forecasts.Even though the forecasts were still inaccurate, their obvious utility for agriculture and shipping further catapulted weather telegraphy from a project run by a nexus of amateurs to a vast infrastructure sponsored initiative, and run by nation-states.
As the science of meteorology and weather stations spread to other countries, scientists also fervently pushed for global standards for collecting weather data (units of measurements,observing times, recording instruments and techniques) in line with similar efforts in industrial manufacturing. However, meteorologists would have to wait (for various reasons, including the two World Wars and the ensuing Cold War) another 75 years for thiscome about.
Meteorology’s next big moment came with the two World Wars.Warring armies soon realised that weather forecasting could be used as strategic weapon, especially with the advent of air warfare. Around the same time, physicists studying the atmosphere concluded that measurements of the upper layers of the atmosphere were as important as surface ones to the fast evolving techniques of numerical weather prediction. Thus, impelled by this twin impetus,in addition to the breakdown of international sharing of weather data, nations began investing heavily in the growth of dense observing networks and upper-air measurements by aircrafts. This was continued during World War II, helped this time by new technologies such as more sophisticated aircraft, radios, air balloons, and finally computers.
With this mammoth expansion of weather data, the stage was set for the next revolution in meteorology—numerical weather prediction (nwp).By the late 1940s,the world was creating far more weather interpretations than could be gainfully used by either forecasters or climatologists.Yet by the late 1950s,as nwp models became more sophisticated and encompassing, it became clear that the available data was not enough—at least, not in the right format, from the right places,and at the right times.
This dire need,which was crucial for the success of nwp, eventually led to the creation of the World Weather Watch (www) under the auspices of the World Meteorological Organization (wmo) in 1963. www is a vast planetary network to collect 365x24x7 weather information—from ground weather stations, ships, airplanes, radars, and satellites.This data, freely available to anyone interested in weather,is not simply collected; it is, in the tradition of Buchan, verified, filtered, interpreted and finally integrated by computer models.
The 19th century British art critic and polymath John Ruskin’s had dreamt of a “perfect system of methodical and simultaneous observations”.www is the culmination of that dream.