Connecticut Weather Zones

Connecticut Weather Zones (January 23, 2014)

Forecasting the weather -- or trying to -- is as old as civilization.

Around 340 B.C., the Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote a four-volume text exploring the origins and dynamics of different weather events.

Still, for many hundreds of years, weather forecasting amounted to educated guesswork based on observation and experience. A look out the window or a step out onto the porch was all that was needed to know if it was hot or cold, wet or dry, windy or still. Dark clouds approaching? In the past that meant a thunderstorm or worse.

Even in 1764, by which time thermometers and barometers actually existed though few people had them, forecasting remained as primitive.

"You have to put yourself in the Colonial mindset. You would know the clouds, you could tell if the sky was lowering, if the wind was changing," said James Rodger Fleming, professor of science, technology and society at Colby College in Maine and a leading authority on the history of weather forecasting.

An early ice-out suggested a mild spring. Snow and cold on Thanksgiving? Ominous.

"A lot of people relied on folklore, looking to nature for any indication of what the coming season might be like," said Sean Potter, a meteorologist and communications specialist with the National Weather Service in Silver Spring, Md.

The width of the brown stripes on wooly bear caterpillars in the late fall was supposed to foretell whether the coming winter would be harsh or not. Wide stripe, mild winter.

But follow the path of a hurricane for a week and forecast, practically to the hour, when it will hit a certain location? Impossible.

In the 1700s in The Courant there was news of British politics and trade ship news, as then there were articles about the war for independence and eventually the inauguration of George Washington and beyond. But there were no weather forecasts. Nonetheless, weather was big news. Unfortunately, it was news only after blizzards, floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes happened. Advance warning of big storms was impossible.

The Courant reported on Jan. 12, 1767, on damage caused by flooding of the Connecticut River. In a story with a Hartford dateline, the paper reported: "The weather which of late has been very cold, chang'd to warm; and last Monday it began to rain, which continued that Night and the next Day, (there being a good Deal of Snow on the Ground) it occasioned a great and sudden flood, which has done great Damage to the Mills, Dams, Bridges, &c. In this Place, a large Dam is carried away, together with a Saw-Mill, & the greatest Part of a Grist-Mill, in which was destroyed a considerable Quantity of Grain and Meal."

Little had changed by the early 1800s when a Connecticut man, William Charles Redfield of Middletown, was credited with a major breakthrough in understanding hurricane winds, if not actually predicting them. Redfield noticed after a hurricane struck Connecticut in 1821 that trees blown down in central Connecticut fell to the northwest, while trees blown down west of central Connecticut, in the Massachusetts Berkshire range, fell in the opposite direction.

From that, Redfield, a founder and first president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, recognized the circular nature of hurricane wind motion. That finding helped make possible suggestions for sailors on how best to avoid the most damaging hurricane winds at sea, Fleming said.

The emergence and rapid development of the telegraph in the mid-1800s proved to be an enormous advance in weather forecasting. "The telegraph was critical for simultaneously collecting data and transmitting [it] to a central location, which was Washington, D.C.," Potter said.

If forecasting before then was little more than an educated guess, the telegraph information made it a more educated guess and a warning of one, two or three days notice of weather patterns to the west, north and east, in places like St. Louis or Chicago or Pittsburgh or Washington. Weather watchers in Connecticut knew there was a good chance the weather in Chicago would play out in Connecticut in a day or two in some way.

"The telegraph gave you this chance to get ahead of the weather a little bit," Fleming said.

With the telegraph, weather forecasts at mid-century began to appear in newspapers. Of course, even with that rapid communication of distant weather patterns, forecasts were far from reliable.

"The weather forecast published in last Saturday's Courant" promised for New England "fair Saturday and probably Sunday," according to a story published in The Courant on Jan. 5, 1904. Instead Connecticut was lambasted with heavy snow and frigid temperatures, as the paper unabashedly acknowledged.

"The whole episode recalls again what each new demonstration suggests -- how utterly powerless and ignorant we are as to weather conditions," the story continued.

"All we can do is take what comes," the Courant concluded.