Weather Enterprise

I am of an age when I can remember folks consulting the Farmers Almanac for some sense of the coming weather. Living in the heartland of the United States, I would hear radio reports of rain accumulation and drying days, along with corn and pork belly price futures. We were aware of the weather in the form of brief paragraphs on the newspaper front page or weather reports on early television where the forecaster moved magnetic symbols – suns, clouds, and lightning bolts – around on a board to give some visual suggestion of what might occur looking forward. It was popular knowledge that the forecast was always wrong. And so the weather did not seem to matter very much, unless you had your grain to cut or your hay to get in.

I do remember my wonder at reports of a tornado that swept through my city, a violent storm that was not supposed to penetrate urban safety, being typically a strange phenomenon that transpired in parts of the country far away and alien, like Kansas and Oklahoma. And so it was with dismay that I awakened to the consequence of cyclonic power in the streets very nearby my home, wind and torque that had torn up the beautiful sidewalk trees, ripped the brick walls from the building facades, and sucked possessions, and maybe even people out of their homes. There was a famous anecdote that the first baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals had slept through the storm, only to awaken in his bed with his room open to the street where gawkers like me came, well, to gawk. I think his name was Joe Cunningham, and to me he was more important as a tornado sleep through-er than he was with the glove.

Today we live with the weather as never before. The news is continuously driven not just by more sophisticated forecast but by the consequences of weather far beyond nearby locale, indeed the world over. We read of and witness the ravages of monsoon and resultant ocean surges, of drought and resultant fire, of ice-frozen fruit, or deluged fields, or displaced refugees with little but their lives to prove their survival. Has weather increased? Well, maybe, but the reporting of weather, the understanding of weather, and the awareness of the impact of weather on our lives has exploded exponentially.

Technology, of course, has made the difference. With the advent of radar and satellite monitoring, weather prediction has become so much more accurate with the ability to track fronts, the elements within, the encircling conditions, and the projected tracks to a degree that we now can receive by radio, mobile phone and other devices, warnings of specific weather dangers in specific areas down to counties and townships. How often to you check the weather? There are many thousands of weather stations around the world, gathering data and reporting conditions. There are multiple satellites revolving the earth, taking pictures, measuring temperatures, and recording patterns of wind that, taken into the maw of big data -- all the statistics and recordings and pictures previously acquired -- are the mix from which we extract predictions and trends.

On a boat recently, I used my cell phone to observe myriad arrows superimposed on the ocean around me, showing direction and degree of wind in multiple locations – not just general prediction of wind from this direction, x to y miles per hour, with gusts up to z, but mini-measurements of the actual and anomalous conditions of weather in real time at all points of the compass.

Hurricane prediction is perhaps the most advanced iteration of this effort. Never before have we known as much about these climactic storms – how and where they originate, how they increase and move, in what direction at what speed, and toward where they may come ashore – and so we are aware early on, alerted as to what is in store, recommended protective actions to take, and ordered to evacuate along designated routes. Superstorm Sandy was one of the most predicted storms ever, nonetheless the damage exacerbated by indifference to the warnings, to include the loss of life, resulted in record physical and financial destruction. Ironically, it was as if too much information was no better than none.

All this observation and prediction is called “the weather enterprise.” It is a big undertaking, publicly financed in the United States through NOAA and NASA, and privately financed through The Weather Channel, Weather Underground, and other for profit weather information management services that interpret and visualize weather data for ever-increasing outlets. The weather enterprise is telling us about the climate we live in, in fulsome detail. It is good to know, but only if we pay attention.