Connecticut Weather Zones

Connecticut Weather Zones (January 23, 2014)

One of the most famous weather-related quotations ever published appeared in an editorial in The Courant in 1897. The editorial noted that "a well-known American writer said once that, while everybody talked about the weather, nobody seemed to do anything about it."

That quote is attributed either to Mark Twain, who at the time was living in Hartford, or his close friend and neighbor, Charles Dudley Warner. He was another famous American author of the time and, as editor of The Courant at the time, is assumed to have written the editorial. So, was Warner referring to himself in the third person, or to his buddy and neighbor Twain?

Steve Courtney of the Terryville section of Plymouth is an author and Twain historian who thinks the evidence suggests the quote belonged to Twain.

"It really has the ring of Mark Twain," Courtney said. "And Warner seems to hint it is him."

By the time Twain was living in Hartford's West End, weather forecasts were produced daily by the precursor to the National Weather Service. The weather predictions could be helpful on a very short-term basis, or not. "General indications of weather expected the next day was about all there was," Fleming said.

In a speech in New York in 1876, Twain had some fun with the quality of those forecasts.

A forecaster in New England, Twain said, "mulls it over, and by and by he gets out something about like this: Probable nor-east to sou-west winds, varying to the southard and westard and eastard and points in between; high and low barometer, sweeping around from place to place, probable areas of rain, snow, hail and drought, succeeded or preceded by earthquakes, with thunder and lightning." This was followed by a roar of laughter from the crowd, according to a report in the New York Times.

It wasn't until the 1920s that the next big breakthrough in forecasting came along when researchers in Norway, known today as the Bergen school, realized the significance of masses of air of differing size, temperature, and wind speed.

"They set the stage for modern day forecasting," Potter said. "Before that, the weather bureau produced weather maps, but they did not have air masses on them." Today the boundaries of these masses are called fronts, ubiquitous in broadcast weather reports.

A century ago, "If you saw a storm moving from the southern plains toward the Midwest, they would assume it would continue on that path," Potter said. But, colliding with a mass of colder or warmer air to the east, it might not, or the collision might well mean very different weather than what Chicago had experienced. Today the location of air masses, their temperature, direction and speed are monitored closely, resulting in increasingly precise forecasts.

In the early 1950s, concerned about it liability exposure from major storms, the Travelers Insurance Companies created a Hartford-based private organization, the Travelers Weather Research Center, to investigate weather dynamics and the resulting impact on accidents, property damage, highway conditions and crop damage.

Mary Beth Davidson, director of records information management at Travelers, said the research center was two-pronged. Its mission "was to provide research about the impact of weather and how we could reduce losses," along with producing the best possible local weather forecasting.

For Travelers, the research helped the company determine throughout the country areas of high risk for weather events such as tornadoes, hurricanes, droughts and flooding -- and price policies accordingly.

"Travelers was out ahead," Colby's Fleming said of the research center. "Hartford was the leader in the science of weather and its impact to the insurance industry." The weather research center "brought the leading theories of weather research into the conversation with the insurance industry in an effort to understand, rationalize and underwrite environmental risks."

In 1969, the weather research center became a private corporation now known as TRC Companies Inc., not affiliated with Travelers. It was another of the many weather forecasting advancements made during the 20th century.

"I would say there are two main areas of advancement, and they are both technologically oriented," said Rob Eisenson, associate professor of meteorology at Western Connecticut State University.

Remote sensing, involving the use of radar -- developed during World War II and subsequently applied to weather forecasting -- and, by the 1960s, the use of weather satellites provided valuable new data to forecasters.

On April 1, 1960, the TIROS satellite was launched, vastly increasing the flow of data on atmospheric pressure, cloud cover, air temperatures and wind speed. Forecasters now could actually see storms move over vast areas. The quality of the satellite images and the monitoring capabilities of satellites have increased dramatically over the decades.

Meanwhile, as far back as the 1940s rudimentary computers began to crunch data from radar and weather balloons and eventually from the satellites. Over the years, computer models that take all that data and transform it into forecasts for much of the world have become ever more precise.

Joe Furey, chief meteorologist at WTIC Fox 61 and WTIC NewsTalk 1080, has been forecasting for 30 years. He remembers listening to the clatter of teletype machines and waiting for faxed images of maps generated by the computer models. "When I look at where we were then and where we are now, we have come a long way," he said.

Furey cites the development of Doppler radar as one of the most significant advances in recent years, and notes that Connecticut had an early Doppler system by 1989.

Radar had been used for decades to detect precipitation, but Doppler radar added the ability to detect motion toward or away from the radar, giving meteorologists the ability to spot rotation in a cloud, often a precursor to a tornado. Prior to Doppler, forecasters might identify a tornado only a few minutes before it touched down and produced mass destruction. Doppler, the National Weather Service's Potter said, increased that warning time to about 15 minutes. That might not seem like much of an improvement, he said, "but even that is enough to save countless lives."

Even with all the technological advances, today's highly sophisticated computer models still require the expertise of a meteorologist to produce the most accurate forecast possible for, say, Connecticut. The computer models, Furey said, are considered "guidance," good for an overall sense of weather trends, but hardly the last word for a forecast at the local level. Rain in Hartford could be snow in Hartland.

"The state of Connecticut has seven climatic zones," Furey said, its weather affected by hills in the eastern and western parts of the state as well as Long Island Sound, among other factors.

While small, it is a state complex enough that even today if you ask five forecasters to produce forecasts for the state they might all differ, he said. Forecasters bring to their work their knowledge of the biases of certain models, and their knowledge of Connecticut's terrain along with their experience and memory of how certain weather indicated by the models actually passed through the state.

"There is an art to it," Furey said.

Unlike forecasts only a half-century ago, forecasts today looking ahead 5 or 7 days often prove highly or reasonably accurate. Next day forecasts can be especially accurate -- but even then, not always.

"Hopefully, some day we'll get it right all the time," Furey said. "But that won't happen any time soon."

Contact Steve Grant at steve@thestevegrantwebsite.com