The Avid Reader: The evolution of weather predicting

For the Ledger-Transcript
Published: 9/11/2020 10:00:00 AM
Modified: 9/11/2020 9:59:47 AM

Current conditions as I write this column: Marrakech 94 degrees, Prague 83 degrees, Montego Bay 77 degrees, Bangkok 91 degrees. I miss all these places, and in the days when I was actually packing to fly to them, I would check the European weather model to determine what I should wear for the next week.

How was I so easily able to figure out my packing, determine how and when I flew, and what to expect for weather when I got there? Ah, this answer goes back to over 150 years in the making.

Let’s start with the various conditions of air on the surface of the earth, versus the weather differences well above the ground. High altitude weather was not so critical until the concept of flight floated into man’s consciousness. That notion, in relatively modern times (1800’s), began with a balloon. While the balloon seemed fine very close to the ground, once aloft, things became a little dicey as the winds did not behave the same way. Flight itself required a need to map weather at all levels. The quest to master the sky depended on accurate weather reading – not just on the ground, but several thousand feet above the surface.

“Empires of the Sky: Zeppelins, Airplanes, and Two Men’s Epic Duel to Rule the World” by Alexander Rose covers this in his impeccably researched history of modern aviation. Before man could fly well, he had to learn and understand the weather at all levels. Most books on flight focus on how airplanes came to rule the skies, frequently omitting the early pilot’s need to understand meteorological conditions; as well as how the airship contributed to both weather knowledge and flying, Rose, however, recognizes the huge role airships played in the development of modern aviation and meteorology. (First, Bucket list confession: I so want to fly in a blimp). Therefore, I am a biased reader from the start, which is why I knew I absolutely had to read this book when I first saw it.

Rose continues with an engaging narrative of Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin and the Wright Brothers. All were intrigued with flight. But, while the Wrights chose to make a flying machine with wings and a motor, Zeppelin fathered the airship. This type of craft paved the way for modern air transportation. The scientists and engineers involved in developing airships took careful measurements of the weather many hundreds and even thousands of feet above the ground, and this allowed airship construction to progress quickly, as they were able to factor in these varying conditions during the construction process. Eventually it was invaluable for airplane pilots as well. Interestingly, the airplane was a far second in the 1930’s. This is because Hugo Eckener, probably one of the most famous men of that era, took Count Zeppelin’s original design, expanded it, refined it, put Maybach engines in it, filled it with hydrogen, named it Graf Zeppelin, and flew it around the world. All this in an age where more planes seemed to crash than landed safely, and no passenger plane could cross the Atlantic.

How then are we not all traveling in airships today? That answer is accorded to one man, Juan Trippe, the creator of Pan American Airways. Both Trippe and Eckener contended for supremacy in the air, plotting political deals, currying favor of the military, and generally doing their darndest to come out on top. It was through a horrible accident, however, that the whole thing came to a head when the Nazis took Eckener’s newest behemoth, named it Hindenburg, and began flights to America. All went well, until one fatal evening when everything went all wrong, all at once, and the magnificent airship exploded into flames and crashed. Was it sabotage? Was it lightening? Was it an arrogant captain who made a fatal docking error? Not telling.

The loss of the Hindenburg put an end to the airship and really opened to door for Trippe, because he had not been idle during these years. Rather, he enlisted the help of Charles Lindbergh (technical), Igor Sikorsky (aviation design), and several college classmates (money), to eventually build an aviation empire ruled by airplanes. Once the Hindenburg was gone, Trippe could slide right into that vacuum and dominate flight.

This is a very compelling book, and one that had me glued to the chapters. But, how did I get to here from weather? As I said, none of the advancements in aviation could have happened without meteorologists and their research.

So, I come to “The Weather Machine: A Journey Inside the Forecast” by Andrew Blum. The modern meteorologists built their amazing weather prediction models on all the research that began on those early airships. Through study, the evolution of monster computers, technical coding skill, and satellite images and data, the European Model has become the prediction vehicle of choice to really know what the weather will be like in the next six to eight days, as well as how to successfully navigate our modern jumbo jets. Currently, American models are not as robust.

Blum really has penned an exciting journey. He traveled the world visiting old weather stations and weather buildings housing supercomputers, interviewing the most famous weather forecasters, and chronicling the careful diplomatic dances meteorologists from all nations must weather to ensure that information on meteorological conditions crosses political boundaries without censure or cost. This might change, but for now the weather is still free. (Sorry about the pun there – sometimes I can’t help myself).

Yet, how much do we really know about the weather and how to interpret the sky when we go outside? While having an accurate prediction provided by our media of choice is wonderful, there have been times for all of us when we are caught by rain or snow and we lament: “But that wasn’t in the forecast!”

Yes, there still is a role to be played by us, the observer, as we try to go about our day. “Weather for Hillwalkers” by Malcom Thomas is the first book to start us out developing our own prediction skills. Interestingly, this book is designed for those hillwalkers in Great Britain, and you are probably wondering why I am including it in a book column written for mostly New England readers.

While the information specific to Great Britain is certainly interesting should we at some point take a hiking tour in that country, the greater part of the book is a tutorial on various clouds, latent heat, dew point, polar jets, fronts and depressions, and wind. If you took a general science class in high school, you probably got a short lesson on the weather. Things have changed since those basic science days, and now the sophistication of weather prediction and terminology can be overwhelming. By reading the basics, then expanding our knowledge, we learn about the atmospheric differences at various altitudes, and can view the sky to determine whether to bring an umbrella. This empowers us all. We are still able to connect to nature and once we learn the weather words and connect them to our surroundings, our day starts to seem more under our control.

It is my opinion that we should take a step back, consider using helium filled airships to fly to remote locations for humanitarian purposes, venture outside and really be able to read the sky, and still enjoy the wonders of modern technology that gives up a head’s up when a big storm is coming. We need all th    ree: looking backward, looking forward, and right now. Read well and often.

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