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?