Weather by the Numbers

Weather by the Numbers: The Genesis of Modern Meteorology

Kristine C. Harper
Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Weather by the Numbers
    Book Description:

    For much of the first half of the twentieth century, meteorology was more art than science, dependent on an individual forecaster's lifetime of local experience. In Weather by the Numbers, Kristine Harper tells the story of the transformation of meteorology from a "guessing science" into a sophisticated scientific discipline based on physics and mathematics. What made this possible was the development of the electronic digital computer; earlier attempts at numerical weather prediction had foundered on the human inability to solve nonlinear equations quickly enough for timely forecasting. After World War II, the combination of an expanded observation network developed for military purposes, newly trained meteorologists, savvy about math and physics, and the nascent digital computer created a new way of approaching atmospheric theory and weather forecasting. This transformation of a discipline, Harper writes, was the most important intellectual achievement of twentieth-century meteorology, and paved the way for the growth of computer-assisted modeling in all the sciences.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-27498-2
    Subjects: History of Science & Technology, Physics

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. vii-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    Wednesday, 9 January 1946. As clouds filled the sky and rain began falling through the chilly morning air, a dozen meteorologists gathered in the US Weather Bureau’s castle-like headquarters, less than a mile from the White House. By 10:30 a.m., Chief of the Weather Bureau Francis Wilton Reichelderfer, top members of his staff, and several military meteorologists were huddled in a confidential meeting with two eminent guests. One was John von Neumann, a brilliant mathematician from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton; the other was Vladimir Zworykin of RCA, inventor of the scanning television camera. The two visitors had...

  5. 1 A Stagnant Atmosphere: The Weather Services before World War II
    (pp. 11-48)

    The meteorological “renaissance” that began in Norway and spread to other European countries at the close of World War I did not extend to the United States. In Europe, meteorology held the same “rank” as astronomy in academic institutions, and research on its theoretical underpinnings was carried out at several academic institutions in Norway, Germany, and England. But in the United States, the top academic institutions did not treat meteorology as a topic on a par with any physical science. If offered, meteorology was typically found in geography courses covering climate. At state universities, meteorology courses were often related to...

  6. 2 Toward a More Dynamic Atmosphere: Discipline Development in the Interwar Period (1919–1938)
    (pp. 49-68)

    The research university structure had emerged in the United States in the late nineteenth century. The physical and life sciences, and later the earth sciences, continued to develop as major disciplinary communities into the early twentieth century. A National Research Council compilation of doctoral degree data from 1923 illustrates the significant differences in disciplinary strength. From 1919 to 1923, more than 600 doctoral degrees were awarded in chemistry, approximately 200 each in botany and physics, almost 100 in the geological sciences, and 20 in astronomy. There were onlytwoPhDs awarded in meteorology,¹ a discipline that had been of scientific...

  7. 3 An Expanding Atmosphere: The War Years (1939–1945)
    (pp. 69-90)

    Throughout the interwar period, most meteorological training in the United States had been conducted “on the job” by the nation’s three weather services. Civilians had enrolled in graduate meteorology programs starting in the early 1930s, but enrollment (and career opportunities) remained minimal despite expanding meteorological support for aviation. With the coming of World War II, the numbers of meteorologically qualified persons were insufficient to meet either domestic or military needs.

    Under Rossby’s direction, the University Meteorological Committee (UMC) established and coordinated an accelerated meteorology program to meet the needs of both civilian and military agencies. Military requirements led to a...

  8. 4 Initial Atmospheric Conditions: Scientific Goals, Civilian Manpower, and Military Funding (1944–1948)
    (pp. 91-120)

    By 1944, the United States was within reach of military victory. The meteorologists who had been training thousands of men to support military missions were faced with empty classrooms. For them, the end of the war appeared to be in sight. Many meteorologists were more than ready to abandon the applied meteorological questions, which they had pursued to support the nation’s defense, for more theoretical pursuits. Their interests and concerns were not just limited to research topics. They extended to researchfunding. Government funding had dominated the war years. Would the free flow of money continue after the war? Other...

  9. 5 An International Atmosphere: Carl-Gustav Rossby and the Scandinavian Connection (1948–1950)
    (pp. 121-150)

    With the arrival in Princeton in August 1948 of Arnt Eliassen—the first member of the Scandinavian Tag Team—an international atmosphere returned once again to the Meteorology Project. By then, Chaim Pekeris had moved to Israel and Paul Queney had returned to France. Both Pekeris and Queney, however, had been workinginthe United States before being asked to join the project. Eliassen, in contrast, was animportedscientist—imported to provide some measure of atmospheric reality to a heavily theoretical project. Indeed, he was imported because Carl-Gustav Rossby, the de facto head of the Meteorology Project, was determined...

  10. 6 Creating a Realistic Atmosphere (1950–1952)
    (pp. 151-186)

    The success of the first ENIAC “expedition” gave the Meteorology Project a much-needed boost. With their simplified barotropic model providing output that at leastlookedmeteorological, it was time for the team toincrease model complexity. In an elaborate system of guess and check, they would introduce new techniques and variables, perform a test, compare the output to an analyzed weather map, and then verify the model.

    The meteorology team would continue to develop more sophisticated models while the computer was being completed, and von Neumann and his Computer Project team would assist with mathematical solutions. The question remained: How...

  11. 7 A Changing Atmosphere: From Developmental to Operational Numerical Weather Prediction (1952–1955)
    (pp. 187-224)

    “Electronic ‘Brain’ Planned to Forecast the Weather,” proclaimed a Science Service article splashed across page 12 of the 12 August 1952Boston Daily Globe. Appearing a scant week after the Princeton meeting that had addressed future operational possibilities, the story explained how computers would be making Weather Bureau forecasts in “two to three years” by using still-experimental numerical weather prediction techniques. Meteorologists would feed data into complex formulae and get out eight charts—computer-generated forecast maps representing “eight horizontal slices of the atmosphere, beginning at sea level and extending up to about 13,000 feet”—every 24 hours.¹ Everyone even remotely...

  12. 8 A New Atmosphere
    (pp. 225-240)

    If the Meteorology Project was the cradle of numerical weather prediction—the initial research phase required to put numerical methods on a firm theoretical footing—then the Joint Numerical Weather Prediction Unit might be considered the “baby walker.” It took the project’s models into the operational phase, putting them to the test daily, with real-time data used to make real-time forecasts. But while the theory was relatively firm, the operations were decidedly shaky.

    The Joint Numerical Weather Prediction Unit did not survive as long as the Meteorology Project that spawned it. Long-term cultural differences and unique customer requirements contributed to...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 241-278)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 279-298)
  15. Index
    (pp. 299-308)