The world of weather forecasting is still dominated by government agencies and national weather services, but there’s now a steady drip-drip of private forecasters.
While they’re not exactly flooding the market, opportunities are increasing all the time.
Is this a storm in a teacup? Should we be concerned? And why did governments, not private companies, come to dominate weather forecasting in the first place?
Some 150 years ago, on August 1, 1861, The Times published a public weather forecast issued by Robert FitzRoy. It was the first “official” weather forecast to appear in the media.
FitzRoy, better known as Charles Darwin’s captain, had established what was to become the British Meteorological Office in 1854. (In case you were wondering, the forecast was for fine weather and moderate to fresh winds.)
Most countries followed Britain in establishing national weather services. The Australian colonies, as they were then, established separate services that were consolidated into a single government service following Federation.
The Crimean War was a major impetus for the development of scientific weather forecasting.
On November 13, 1854, a storm destroyed much of the French and British fleet in the Black Sea. The French President, Louis-Napoléon, asked one of the most famous French scientists of the time, Urbain Le Verrier, to investigate whether the storm could have been predicted.
Le Verrier assembled weather observations from across Europe and concluded the approach of the storm could have been predicted, if a meteorological network had been established across the continent.
Another disaster, the 1859 sinking of the clipper Royal Charter off north Wales in bad weather near the end of a passage from Melbourne to Liverpool, led to discussions in Britain about the feasibility of forecasting such storms.
FitzRoy was prominent in these discussions and started to establish weather stations connected by telegraph to his London office. He used reports from these stations to prepare what he called “synoptic charts”, a term still used by meteorologists today for weather charts reflecting the state of the atmosphere over a large area at a given moment.
FitzRoy’s forecasts were frequently ridiculed and in 1864 The Times stopped stopped publishing his forecasts, rudely attacking his efforts.
After pressure from the shipping industry, public weather forecasting resumed a few years later (although too late for FitzRoy, who died in 1865).
Perhaps the abuse of weather forecasters and the need to establish weather stations across countries and continents, linked by telegraph, meant that only governments had the resources and will to establish weather forecasting services.
From the middle of the 20th century, efforts to develop computer weather forecast models required the fastest computers available, and again this meant only governments had the resources to produce the best available forecasts.
This has changed in recent decades, with enormous amounts of data freely available from across the world to anyone interested in the weather.