Boomers Witnessed the Evolution of Weather Forecasting

As long as people have been aware of their surroundings, there was a need for some form of weather forecasting. In ancient times, attempts were made to predict weather by observing the sky, astrology, observing plant and animal behavior under changing conditions, and then, as they were were invented, with measuring instruments (such as the barometer in the 1600s). Sayings such as, “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky at morning, sailors take warning,” have been circulating for more than two thousand years. Variations existed for shepherds and farmers.

Humans stumbled along with day-to-day weather as best they could until, in 1904, a Norwegian mathematician named Vilhelm Bjerknes surmised that weather might be predicted by using mathematical equations. British mathematician Lewis Fry Richardson took the concept to heart and quickly came to the conclusion that a huge number of calculations — taking all the variables into account (wind speed and direction, temperature, pressure, to name a few) — would need to be made for even a small weather prediction to be possible, let alone in a timely manner. It took until the 1940s for a team of meteorologists and mathematicians at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, New Jersey, to employ early computers to work the tens of thousands of calculations needed in weather forecasting.

But, hey, Mister Boomer, what does this have to do with the Boomer Generation? Fast forward to a time young boomers were hearing stories about World War II. The onset of our generation appearing immediately after the War meant movies, books and family remembrances were readily available for interested boomers. A story often told in various cultural forms was about Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy on D-Day. One of the amazing facts of that historical battle on June 6, 1945, is that the order to go or no rested in the hands of a team of British and American weather forecasters. The need for accurate weather forecasting became crucial to the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers. Despite far from ideal weather conditions for days on end, General Dwight D. Eisenhower took the team’s advice that a lull in the rain, wind, fog and rough seas would occur within a three-day window beginning on June 5. In his report on the operation, Eisenhower wrote, “I thank the Gods of War we went when we did.”

After the War, the advances made in forecasting for battles, in combination with a more developed radar system, ushered in a new era of weather forecasting. By 1950, the team of scientists at IAS in Princeton, New Jersey, led by Jules Carney, successfully predicted a series of forecasts in North America, ten years after first applying computers to the challenge. By the mid-50s, the U.S. Weather Bureau was issuing regular forecasts across the country. Boomers were the first generation to benefit from this forecasting, and TV helped get the word out.

In 1960, the U.S. launched the first weather satellite (TIROS) to monitor the Earth’s cloud cover. It was operational for a mere 78 days, but the Genie was out of the bottle — that more data from both terrestrial and space sources were going to assist in future forecasting.

Nowadays, with weather forecasting available on your phone, right down to an hour-by-hour prediction for your Zip Code, it’s difficult for us to remember that this type of forecasting — and its increasing accuracy (though we still complain) — was non-existent before the boomer years.

One last example will illustrate how boomers had a front-row seat to the evolution of weather forecasting, and that involves tornados. There was not a clear understanding of what conditions caused tornados, nor was there enough data gathered before the boomer years. The result was that predictions of tornados were generally not attempted. A little known fact is that from 1887 until 1950, the Weather Bureau forbade or highly discouraged the use of the word “tornado” to avoid a public panic from these fearsome and deadly storm events.

In March of 1948, a tornado devastated the Tinker Air Force base in Oklahoma. The base commander, looking to avoid another disaster, ordered two meteorologists, Captain Robert Miller and Major Ernest Fawbush, to work on the prediction problem. The two developed a system and successfully predicted several tornado outbreaks in 1948. At that time, predicting tornados was considered career suicide for weather forecasters. Captain Miller later wrote, “I wondered how I could manage as a civilian, perhaps as an elevator operator.” In 1950, the Weather Bureau dropped their opposition to mentioning the word, just in time for boomers to watch weather forecasts on television.

Despite the unpredictability of storms like the tornados, hurricanes, wildfires, floods and numerous weather disasters that have befallen our country in the past few months alone, the death toll for these events is dramatically lower than what would have been just a few decades ago.

Do you remember watching the weather forecasts on TV, boomers? Did you ever base what you wore to school on the weather forecast you saw on TV?

Boomers Watched the Apocalypse on Screen

When COVID-19 first began its spread across the United States, very quickly people created lists of pandemic movies that were either eerily similar to our situation or a good distraction to the reality outside our doors. Mister Boomer checked out a bunch of them, and found that the vast majority completely ignored films from the boomer era. Most started their lists with films released in the 1990s and later, and almost all included the movie, Pandemic (2016). We’re talking about our generation here, so those lists aren’t of much use in these parts.

When Mister B put on his thinking cap and let his fingers do the walking through the Internet, what he did discover was there were very few films made during the boomer era of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s that pertained to bacterial and virus-related epidemics. There was the occasional zombie infection and all, but take a look:

• 1950s sci-fi films were often metaphors about the perils of nuclear war. All the giant monster films begin with radiation turning smaller creatures into gargantuan size. Others featured alien invasions of Earth, either the bad aliens out for their own gain (to gather slaves, food, people as food, our water, etc.) or the good aliens coming to warn us against using atomic weapons.
• The 1960s went far-out there imagining all sorts of ways for mankind to be on the brink of extinction. Many of these films were foreign-made and most were unmemorable. One has to wonder if the era of experimental drug use influenced the writing of films.
• The 1970s films were a bit more interesting. The one that Mister Boomer recalls and would like to recommend is The Andromeda Strain (1971).

First the Book, then the Movie
Michael Crichton published The Andromeda Strain in 1969. It was the first of his novels published under his own name. Boomers will recall he went on to pen the Jurassic Park series of books and films, among others. The Andromeda Strain was brought to the silver screen in 1971.

Just over a decade after the first men were launched into space, Crichton envisioned a time when the U.S. military would launch a satellite into space for the express purpose of discovering and gathering microorganisms. Their intentions were to seek out microorganisms that could be made into biological weapons.

As luck would have it, a meteor containing such a microorganism crashes into the satellite, causing it to fall to Earth in a small desert town in Arizona. The town’s population is wiped out within minutes. This organism clots human blood almost instantly.

Naturally, the military gets involved and tries to cover up the entire project while scientists discover the true intent of the military satellite and rush to identify, contain, and neutralize the virus. Suspense and drama ensue.

In the end, despite heroic means, the organism can’t be controlled by human science and escapes its containment facility to a level in the Earth’s atmosphere that is more an environment to its liking, leaving the question of, if it is still out there, waiting for the moment when it will return to devastate life on the planet.

It’s a suspenseful movie that mixed science and fiction in a way that made people wonder if it could actually happen. Now that we face an actual Earth-bound foe that is wreaking havoc around the globe, maybe it’s time for us to once again view those monster, disaster and apocalyptic movies of the boomer era to digest the overarching moral that ties these stories together: namely, it’s not nice to mess with Mother Nature, in any part of the Universe.

How about it, boomers? Did you read The Andromeda Strain or see the movie when it was released?