By STEVE GRANT
Special to The Courant
7:15 AM EST, January 25, 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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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