Weather Forecasting Through the Ages

Towards Numerical Prediction
Over the past few centuries, physical laws governing aspects of the atmosphere have been expressed and refined through mathematical equations. The idea of numerical weather forecasting—predicting the weather by solving mathematical equations—was formulated in 1904 by Vilhelm Bjerknes (1862-1951, Norwegian) and developed by British mathematician Lewis Fry Richardson (1881-1953, British). Despite the advances made by Richardson, it took him, working alone, several months to produce a wildly inaccurate six-hour forecast for an area near Munich, Germany. In fact, some of the changes predicted in Richardson’s forecast could never occur under any known terrestrial conditions. Adding to the failure of this effort, a six-hour forecast is not particularly useful if it takes weeks to produce.

Courageously, Richardson reported his results in his book Weather Prediction by Numerical Process, published in 1922. In one of the chapters of this work, Richardson describes a scheme for predicting the weather before it actually happens, a scheme involving a roomful of people, each computing separate sections of the equations, and a system for transmitting the results as needed from one part of the room to another. Unfortunately, Richardson’s estimated number of human calculators needed to keep pace with weather developments was 64,000, all located in one very large room.

Richardson’s work highlighted the obvious fact that a large number of calculations had to be made very rapidly in order to produce a timely forecast. In the late 1940s, using one of the earliest modern computers, significant progress toward more practical numerical weather forecasts was made by a team of meteorologists and mathematicians at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, New Jersey. Mathematician John von Neumann (1903-1957, Hungarian-American) directed the construction of the computer and put together a team of scientists led by Jule Charney (1917-1981, American) to apply the computer to weather forecasting. Charney determined that the impracticality of Richardson’s methods could be overcome by using the new computers and a revised set of equations, filtering out sound and gravity waves in order to simplify the calculations and focus on the phenomena of most importance to predicting the evolution of continent-scale weather systems. In April 1950, Charney’s group made a series of successful 24-hour forecasts over North America, and by the mid-1950s, numerical forecasts were being made on a regular basis.



Weather Forecasting Through the Ages
Early History
Towards Numerical Prediction
Modern Tools of the Trade
The Aqua Spacecraft
Benefits to Society

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