by: Victor Boesen
The Weather Machine
The science of meteorology began more than 350 years ago. It started when Galileo, the great Italian astronomer, devised the first instrument to measure the weather. This was the thermometer. Until then, nobody ever knew how hot or cold it was.
The science was carried forward another step by Galileo's assistant, Evangelista Torricelli, who had the novel idea that the atmosphere had weight, that this weight fluctuated, and invented the barometer to prove it. Next came the hygrometer. Based on the human hair, which expands under dampness, this instrument measured moisture in the air. The early weatherman now had three instruments to tell him something about the state of the atmosphere-the tem perature, pressure, and humidity.
In 1749 the practice of sending these instruments aloft by kite began. The use of kites to gather information about the weather continued until about 1925 when it gradually was re placed by the airplane.
When balloons appeared toward the end of the eighteenth century these provided a great leap forward in weather obser vation, supplementing the kite. In fact, balloons to this day remain an important tool in gathering information about the weather.
The balloon was invented by the Montgolfier brothers, Joseph and Jacques, after watching the clouds. They reason that if they could enclose something like a cloud in a large light bag, it might carry the bag into the air. The brothers used smoke for the "cloud," not knowing that it was the heat from the fire that supplied the lift.
It was not long after the Montgolfiers' first flight in 1784 that the balloon was turned to explorations of the upper air, beginning when a Dr. John Jeffries rose from London to get readings on pressure, temperature, and moisture, as well as collect samples of air at different levels.
There followed a flurry of balloon ascents for weather ob- servations. Then the excitement died down for the next seven ty-five years or so, until the flights of James Glaisher for the British Association for the Advancement of Science.
Glaisher made twenty-eight flights in all, starting in 1862 and ending in 1866. On one flight Glaisher calculated he reached 37,000 feet, though he lost consciousness at 29,000 feet for lack of oxygen and could only estimate how high he had gone after he revived and found the balloon descending.
Glaisher's balloon flights for science were the most ambiti ous efforts until that time to learn about the atmosphere. His first objective was to measure the temperatures and humidity as high up as the balloon would carry him. Secondarily there were nine other things he wanted to do. These involved measuring dew points, pressures, electricity, oxygen, and the vibrating time of a magnet. He wanted samples of the air at different elevations, noting the height and kind of clouds around him and their density and extent. He wanted to find out about the direction and speed of air currents, and to make observations on sound.
Only one hundred years before man walked on the moon these were matters on the frontier of knowledge.
Additionally, it was noteworthy for Glaisher in those be ginning days of atmospheric research that his pulse rate in creased with altitude and that his breath came faster. He also made note that at four miles up he could hear his heart beating.
Glaisher brought back other information, as new in his time as the reports of the first astronauts orbiting the earth a cen tury or so later. Sounds from the earth seemed to be affected by the amount of moisture in the air, Glaisher noticed. In clouds four miles up, he could hear a railway train, but when the clouds were far below, he heard nothing. The firing of a gun reached him at 10,000 feet. He heard the barking of a dog at two miles, but not the shouting of a crowd of people at four miles up.
Some of those who followed Glaisher in high-altitude bal loon studies of the weather were less fortunate than he and died. This led to the unmanned balloon equipped with auto matic recording instruments in 1892. Such flights brought back much additional information, adding solidly to the fund of meteorological knowledge started by Glaisher. One prob lem with these balloons, however, was that they were often lost or not recovered for years.
Nearly forty years later, in the 1930's, unmanned balloons carrying thermometer, barometer, and hygrometer-the three basic measuring tools with which weather studies all started- were still in use. But tiny radios were used to send back at- mospheric findings from the balloons.
During the decade of the 1950's the United States Navy car ried the balloon idea several steps further. The Navy experi mented with a giant affair loaded with several hundred pounds of instruments, not to mention a hefty cargo of ballast. These monster balloons, called transosondes, were meant to drift across the Pacific Ocean from Japan to the United States, reporting the weather as they went. The project was abandoned because of the fear they might collide with trans pacific airliners.
Then came the GHOST (Global Horizontal Sounding Tech nique) balloon. The plan was to send 10,000 Ghosts up to 20,000, 40,000, and 80,000 feet respectively, fitted with paper thin weather sensors, and float them lazily around the world in the Southern Hemisphere, well out of the way of airplane traffic. The balloons would remain aloft indefinitely, reporting to earth by radio kept alive by sun-powered batteries.
In the United States the first systematic and broad-scale study of the weather began in 1846. The man behind it was Professor Joseph Henry of Princeton University, who that same year became the first secretary of the newly founded Smithsonian Institution in Washington, set up "for the in crease and diffusion of knowledge among men."
Although other names may be better known, it was Profes sor Henry, a physicist, who, by his experiments, laid the groundwork for the development of the telegraph, telephone, radio, and electric motor.
Among Henry's many interests was the weather. He had long felt that more needed to be known about it. Accordingly, he was no sooner installed as boss at the Smithsonian than he organized a corps of weather watchers scattered throughout the North American continent. It was the first time this large territory had been brought under a single system of weather observation.
For the next thirty years Professor Henry received weather information from his army of watchers and made it one of his many duties to analyze the information, publishing what he thought it meant. He was the first man to send weather infor mation by wireless. He also was first to show daily atmos pheric conditions on a map and to make forecasts based on the current day's reports.
Professor Henry's weather service at the Smithsonian Insti- tution became the model for the United States Weather Bu- reau. The forerunner of this was established after there had been an unusually heavy toll of ships from storms on the Great Lakes in the late 1860's. Those inland seas are notorious for their sudden violent squalls. There are probably more ships at the bottom of the Great Lakes than any other comparable bodies of water in the world.
In those same years stormy weather also badly hit shipping on the Mississippi River and off the Atlantic coast, with fur- ther heavy loss of life and property.
Ships were especially vulnerable to storms. In sight of land they were warned by flags and lights. Beyond sight of land they were on their own. This was how it was until Marconi invented wireless at the end of the century. Wireless then was used to do for ships at sea what the telegraph already was being used for on land-to carry weather information. Before long there were few ships without a "Marconi man" aboard.
The shipping losses of the late 1860's brought a public demand for fuller and more accurate forecasting of the wea ther. As a result, on February 9, 1870, Congress passed a joint resolution directing the Secretary of War to "provide for taking meteorological observations at the military stations in the interior of the continent and at other points . . . and for giving notice on the Northern Lakes and on the seacoast, by magnetic telegraph and marine signals, of the approach and force of storms."
The first telegraph forecast was sent from Chicago at noon, November 9, 1870, by Increase Lapham, the nation's first official weather forecaster. Lapham's forecast warned of high winds at Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Omaha, Nebraska; a falling barometer farther east; and predicted, "High winds probable along the Lakes."
Twenty-one years later, in 1891, Congress took the weather service out of the hands of the military and set up a separate bureau for it under the Department of Agriculture. So began the United States Weather Bureau.
As the science of meteorology moved ahead, the offspring of Professor Henry's pioneer weather service at the Smithson ian Institution added more and more services. Today, as the National Weather Service of the National Oceanic and At mospheric Administration, under the Department of Com merce, its work is not only to inform about the weather but to understand and inform about the whole of man's natural environment. It is one of the most complex and far-reaching organizations in history and its area of observation is the en tire world.
In a very real sense the service keeps an eye on the weather. This began on April 1, 1960, when a satellite shaped like an old-fashioned washtub with two television cameras aboard was fired into a polar orbit of the earth, traveling four hundred miles up. This was TIROS, the first weather satellite. For the first time, instead of looking up at the weather from below, man would see it from above.
TIROS seemed to catch the spirit of its mission at once. On its very first time around the earth, it sent back pictures of a big storm sweeping down on New England from Canada.
A few months later, a second TIROS went up, this one equipped to send back information about the earth's heat bal ance by measuring infrared radiation, opening yet a new door to the secrets of the weather. There were eight more TIROS satellites in orbit by 1965, each improving on the last in what it told of what was going on in the heavens.
After the TIROS series came NIMBUS, a Latin word for rainstorm, weighing nearly 1,000 pounds. Working from 690 miles up, more than half again as high as TIROS, NIMBUS commanded a wider view of the earth and, with a whole bat tery of TV cameras aboard, sent back a stream of high-quality pictures at night as well as in the daytime.
Then came ATS, a name made up from the first letters of Applications Technology Satellite. ATS was parked 22,500 miles above the Pacific, high enough so that it stayed in one place in relation to the earth. Here was another first-for the first time man could see the entire disk of his planet at one time. It was a bird's-eye view such as no bird ever had.
It was the view which greeted our imaginary visitor from outer space as he approached the earth. There it was-the whole world, an awesome, breathtaking panorama of seas and continents, just as it looked on a classroom globe, coming and going behind a swirl of broken clouds.
Ten years after the first TIROS was launched, bringing weather observation into the space age, scores of robot wea thermen were keeping watch from beyond the atmosphere. They had sent back millions of pictures. The earth itself was more photographed than anything that lived on it.
Satellites showed weather systems never seen before. They showed them better and sooner. They revealed hurricanes in the beginning stages for the first time, showing them as they grew into full-fledged storms. Until then hurricanes had been hunted by airplane, without much luck and at considerable cost and hazard.
Tornadoes and thunderstorms can be as deadly as hurri canes, but often escape detection because they are small and last only hours instead of days. But they found their match in the unrelenting satellite. The eye in space picked up the telltale patterns of the clouds even before the droplets were big enough to show on the radar screen.
In one case a satellite showed the wispy cloud line of a storm four hours ahead of the radar which produced twelve tornadoes, at least fifteen hailstorms, and nineteen destructive windstorms. Another time the space camera spotted a nest of thunderstorms hiding behind a cold front three hundred miles off California. The warning gave San Francisco time to pre pare for the worst thunderstorm in five years.
In the spring of 1974 yet another satellite was boosted into place to move with the earth. SMS, initials for Synchronous Meteorological Satellite, was almost a whole weather bureau in itself, and it kept a flood of pictures coming day and night. In the daytime its cameras revealed the earth and clouds as clearly as they would be seen from a half mile away. At night, using infrared sensors, the cameras showed the pictures with a resolution of five miles.
Besides sending back pictures, the new sentry in space col- lected weather information from some 10,000 widely scattered sensing stations on the ground and relayed it to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration at Wallops Island, Virginia. NOAA, in turn, distributed the information around the world, all in "real time," or as it was happening.
The sensing stations from which SMS gleaned its informa tion were located on platforms at sea, and on land, lakes, and rivers around the country, most of them unmanned. A few were aboard ships. The information told of wind, rainfall humidity, water levels, tides, currents, temperatures-even earthquake tremors, if any.
Finally, SMS carried instruments to measure and report or solar flares, which can be seen far better from satellites outside the atmosphere than from the ground. Solar flares, tongues of flame which leap out as much as a half million miles or more from the sun's surface, are known to interfere with radio corm munications and are suspected of causing other mischief as well. Scientists want to know more.
With the help of the satellites forecasters are doing better For the first time the Weather Service now provides forecasts for two and three days ahead-and does it more boldly. The forecasters make less detailed five-day forecasts, and for a small sum the Service will mail you the outlook for temperature and precipitation for thirty-day periods throughout the year,
The weathermen claim a score of eighty-seven hits out of every hundred on their forecasts for today, eighty out of a hundred on those for tomorrow.
While this was an improvement, there still was a long way to go. For all the gadgets to help him, from Galileo's ther mometer to SMS, the master eye in space, man was still being clobbered by the weather. He was still being hit by "sneak" storms. He was still being washed out by floods he had no idea were coming. Droughts continued to take the farmer's crops.
Much of the old enigma was still there.
At least one thing, however, had been gained in great meas ure. This was a deeper understanding of just how complicated the workings of the weather machine are and how much there still is to learn. To know that one knows not, as Socrates said, is to stand on the threshold of wisdom.
The components of the weather-temperatures, moisture, winds, clouds, pressures-could be compared to a deck of cards which is being endlessly shuffled in infinite interacting combinations. The sudden shadow that sweeps the ground as a cloud moves across the sun, the breeze that rumples the hair, the little whirlwind that moves across the field picking up dust-all have meaning. Each has something to do with the weather to come.
There is so much going on all the time that computers handling the information must be able to perform several hun dred million operations a second. In some of the mathematical models which are being developed to simulate the processes of the weather, it takes half a million pieces of data merely to describe the atmosphere at a single, fleeting instant.
"The hydrodynamics of meteorology," said the late John von Neumann, who first suggested using computers to analyze the weather, "presents without doubt the most complicated series of interrelated problems not only that we know of but that we can imagine."
Von Neumann was a scientific prodigy with a special bent for mathematics. He was a professor at the Institute for Ad vanced Study at Princeton, New Jersey, and as a member of the United States Atomic Energy Commission earned its $50,000 Enrico Fermi Award in 1956.
To crack the riddle of the weather once and for all, most of the nations of the world have closed ranks in a common effort. The United States and more than one hundred other countries have banded together under the World Meteorological Organi zation and the International Council of Scientific Unions, to get the job done during the 1970's. Global Atmospheric Re- search Program the project is called. Along with GARP is a related program, World Weather Watch, which aims to set up the first truly worldwide observa tion and forecasting network, putting into practice what the larger group learns.
A beginning contribution of the United States to GARP was the Barbados Oceanographic and Meteorological Experiment -BOMEX for short. Taking place during three months in 1969, it was the most comprehensive attack ever made on the mystery of how the air and the oceans work together to shape the weather of the world.
The locale was a huge square of the Caribbean, 310 miles on a side. These waters were chosen because they were part of the wide tropical belt where the interaction between sea and air somehow drives atmospheric circulation. At Barbados, also, the ocean is very deep-18,000 feet-and assorted sea currents and trade winds converge there. It is a kind of cross roads of the tropical ocean.
The block of earth and skv to be explored reached from the bottom of the sea to 100,000 feet up. With a ship stationed at each corner, this chunk of water and air would be studied as no corner of sea and sky had ever been examined before.
The equipment included twenty-four airplanes, ten ships, a dozen instrumented buoys, and FLIP, the research vessel of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, which can be up ended in the water to serve as an underwater instrument plat form. Some felt that the satellite more than 22,000 miles up should be counted as well, since it would also be used.
Including ships, instrument platforms, and balloons riding at different altitudes, the area was like the scene of a military operation.
Trillions of bits of information from this patch of the At lantic and the air above were fed to receiving ships equipped with recorders which could take forty-two inputs at a time, sorting the information onto seven tracks of magnetic tape. There were miles of tape each day.
While GARP went forward with its worldwide investiga- tions to learn what made the weather machine go, there were more and more collateral experiments to control the way the weather machine ran, using silver iodide as the tool. The first storm attacked was the hurricane.