Meteorology as Forecasting

In 1900, most people equated meteorology with weather forecasting. Meteorologists did not explore how air circulated through the atmosphere,

Station chief (at desk) and a colleague at a U.S. Weather Bureau local forecast office, about 1900 (NOAA Photo Library)

or why some winter storms produced heavy rain. They predicted the next day's weather. This was a difficult task without satellites, radar, and highspeed computers. Meteorology was not a science. It was an art.

Modern meteorology depends on assembling massive amounts of surface and upper-air data from around the world at least four times per day. Data collection depends on high-speed communication lines that carry weather observations to supercomputers within minutes. At the turn of the 19th century, forecasters faced the challenging task of predicting the next day's weather on the basis of a relatively small number of surface observations that arrived via telegraph twice daily.

Most forecasters spent their entire lives in one location. Starting out as teenage trainees, they learned how to make sense of the "signs of the sky"—the different cloud types and the order in which they marched across the sky. After many years, the best forecasters had an innate feel for the atmosphere. They recognized the sky conditions preceding stormy weather. They also realized that the weather rarely changed radically from one day to the next. Forecasters often made a persistence forecast because weather tended to persist from one day to the next. They also used cli-matological records of average temperature and precipitation to make

German physicist Friedrich Pockels publishes his theory on the formation of precipitation on mountain slopes

Rubber balloons carry meteorological equipment aloft for the first time

The Norwegian Vilhelm Bjerknes advocates a graphical approach to weather prediction




The Wright brothers successfully complete the first manned airplane flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina forecasts. For example, northern Maine winters are bitterly cold and snowy. Without any other information, a forecaster would expect below-freezing temperatures. The forecaster's job did not include explaining the weather. His only job was to give people in the local area enough knowledge of upcoming weather so they could go about their daily routines.

Official forecasts were typically for 24 hours, but people plan their time more than one day ahead. Farmers with crops and livestock susceptible to weather damage were particularly interested in long-range

The U.S. meteorologist Cleveland Abbe was an early supporter of a scientifically rigorous meteorology. (AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives)

Vilhelm Bjerknes proposes that meteorology must first establish the initial conditions of the atmosphere before attempting to forecast future weather conditions


The German physicist Philipp Lenard becomes the first scientist to pursue studies of cloud and raindrop characteristics. Using a water-soluble dye on special paper, he records the sizes and concentrations of raindrops

The Americans Charles Greeley Abbot and Frederick E. Fowle, Jr., explore the sensitivity of climate to changes in solar radiation


The French scientist Léon-Philippe Teisserenc de Bort defines the troposphere and stratosphere after 10 years of examining atmospheric structure with balloons

Vilhelm Bjerknes and J. W. Sandstrom publish their famous book Statics: Dynamic Meteorology and Hydrography. This book establishes Vilhelm Bjerknes's method for solving physical problems with graphical techniques


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