Weather on the Front Lines

War erupted in Europe in August 1914, as the German army raced across the plains of France and stopped a few miles short of Paris. In past conflicts, field commanders had not considered the tactical or strategic use of weather information. As the Nobel Prize-winning physicist and U.S. military meteorology coordinator Robert A. Millikan (1868-1953) wrote in his 1919 article "Some Scientific Aspects of the Meteorological Work of the United States Army," "Prior to 1914 a meteorological section was not considered a necessary part of the military services." The weather would do what it would do—and the armies on the ground and the navies at sea would continue their missions regardless of the conditions. Part of this thinking can be traced to the state of meteorology at the time. With little in the way of a physical theory, and without the capability to tie information from empirical observations to existing physical theory, weather forecasters on the front lines would have been minimally effective. Unlike earlier wars, this war was heavily mechanized. The effective use of aviation, poison gas, and longer-range artil-

lery depended upon weather conditions. Weather forecasts had to be detailed—"partly cloudy, cooler, with light wind" at the airstrip was of absolutely no use to a pilot flying more than 100 miles (160.9 km) to reach his target.

German military strategists had recognized the importance of weather for future aerial operations. The countries being drawn into this conflict had not. British and French forces very quickly realized that the use of poison gas demanded a knowledge of atmospheric conditions. When lobbing gas canisters at the enemy while taking shelter in the myriad trenches snaking throughout the French countryside, combatants wanted assurance that their attack would be successful. If the wind shifted over their positions, they could be poisoned. If the wind were blowing too hard, the gas would disperse before reaching the enemy. Knowledge of low-level wind behavior became extremely important.

Upper-level winds also affected the prosecution of the war. German airships loaded with bombs and heading for London were blown off course to the north and east by unexpected winds aloft. Once the allies started to use increased numbers of airplanes and balloons for reconnaissance, it was clear they would lose pilots and aircraft unless they had adequate meteorological support. By 1917 tremendous improvements in aircraft construction allowed pilots to fly bombing runs day and night. These aircraft operated significantly lower and more slowly than today's high-performance aircraft, but winds still affected fuel loading and bomb release. Pilots also needed to know whether clouds would obscure their targets.

Winds also affected long-range artillery. Wind has virtually no effect over short distances, but over long distances high winds can force ordnance well off target. Since shells went high into the atmosphere and then arced down, cloud cover and turbulence within the clouds had to be considered. Flamethrowers were another new weapon for which wind speed and direction made a difference. Sending a flame into the wind could be deadly to the person handling the weapon.

The war demanded extensive surface and upper air observations. Everyone involved in the conflict quickly established dense networks of observation stations connected by radio sets. Forecasters, operating in unfamiliar areas for which they possessed no forecasting rules, quickly created a variety of ad hoc predictive techniques that did not take into account the physical mechanisms producing the observed phenomena.

Vilhelm Bjerknes, in Leipzig, Germany, during the early war years, realized the value of Germany's upper-air network. Knowledge of incoming weather allowed German military leaders to make better decisions about troop movements and attacks. Bjerknes was convinced that aviation would continue to expand in postwar Europe. He would seek a way to coordinate an international effort to tie empirical data with physical

Military meteorologists provided wind forecasts that were important to trench-bound soldiers launching or trying to escape from poison gas attacks during World War I. (The Nations at War, by Willis John Abbot [1917])

reasoning for a stronger meteorology. His opportunity occurred when Norway called him home.

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