As the 10pm newscast drew near one night last month, the chief meteorologist of Birmingham’s ABC-affiliate began to get worked up. Balding and characteristically attired in suspenders, James Spann is one of the most recognizable and respected local TV meteorologists in the country. But he had a familiar problem. The day had been pleasant in […]
As the 10pm newscast drew near one night last month, the chief meteorologist of Birmingham’s ABC-affiliate began to get worked up. Balding and characteristically attired in suspenders, James Spann is one of the most recognizable and respected local TV meteorologists in the country. But he had a familiar problem. The day had been pleasant in Alabama, and more of the same temperate spring weather lay ahead—so what the heck was he going to talk about?
“I’ve got 2 minutes and 30 seconds to fill,” Spann explained. “Everyone in my audience is going to know what the weather is going to do. Except maybe my mom. She’s 85 years old. But most everybody has looked on their phone or some other device already. So what am I going to do? Am I just going to rehash everything they already know?”
Many forecasters have been asking themselves this question lately. Two technologies have converged to rapidly displace the primary function of meteorologists. First are computers that are generally better forecasters than humans. For most types of weather, numerical weather prediction has superseded human forecast methods. And secondly, thanks to the Internet and increasingly ubiquitous weather apps on mobile devices, people have continuous, immediate access to 5-day, 7-day or 10-day forecasts. As technology drives automation and machines take job after job once performed by humans, are meteorologists next in line?
The early days
Meteorology, as a science, only became possible about a century ago after a succession of physicists worked out the basics of thermodynamics in the 1700s and 1800s. American meteorologist Cleveland Abbe is credited with making the observation around 1890 that “meteorology is essentially the application of hydrodynamics and thermodynamics to the atmosphere.”
Early in the 20th century, Norwegian physicist Vilhelm Bjerknes devised a two-step process for forecasting. First he would make observations of existing weather conditions, and then he used the laws of motion to calculate how those conditions might change over time. According to Peter Lynch, who wroteabout this early history for the Journal of Computational Physics, Bjerknes considered seven basic variables when understanding weather: pressure, temperature, density, humidity, and three components of atmospheric motion. He then identified seven independent equations, including the three hydrodynamic equations of motion, to solve for future conditions.
Bjerknes’s brilliant ideas form the cornerstone of modern meteorology. Unfortunately, they’re completely impractical. In his day there were few surface-level observations, fewer observations above the surface, and almost no information about the atmosphere over the oceans or unpopulated areas. Moreover, there existed no efficient means of collecting or sharing what few observations did exist. Even if Bjerknes had some data, there were no calculators or computers to help solve the complicated equations he found to govern atmospheric motion.