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Blue-sky thinking – what’s on the horizon for weather forecasting?

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…

In the future, private companies may provide your daily dose of sunshine. clooky

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?

Fine beginnings

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.)

Robert FitzRoy is the father of modern forecasting.

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.

Stormy spells

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.

New morning

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.

Forecasting models are developing in line with technology.

We can all now access computers with much more grunt than those used to run weather forecast models only a decade or two ago. These days, you can run a weather forecast model on a laptop.

The Bureau of Meteorology (BOM), of course, runs much bigger models on its supercomputers, and these models have improved the skill of forecasts vastly in recent years.

But many of the tools the BOM forecasters use are also made freely available to the public.

For short-term forecasts, I can access the Bureau’s radars which show the direction of movement of cloud and rain (and I use this to decide whether to take a brolly on a walk to the shops).

Satellite photos provide more information to diagnose the strength and location of cold fronts.

I can also access the forecast synoptic charts, which are predicted by computer weather forecast models developed by the Bureau and other national weather services overseas.

I can use these charts to make pretty good forecasts of the weather that will accompany Friday’s footy game, so I can decide what I will do on the weekend.

Of course, these same tools can be used for more serious forecasting purposes. The openness of the BOM in freely providing so much data and so many forecast tools has given a great opportunity for private weather forecasters.

Private predictions

There are increasing opportunities for weather forecasters in the private sphere.

Private forecasts can be tailored. Justin Hobson

For years, several companies have provided targeted forecasts to businesses with weather-sensitive operations such as oilrigs. Some insurance and re-insurance companies have in-house meteorological groups to advise on weather- and climate-sensitive risks.

A recent report from Reuters pointed to a 2007 alert by private forecasting company, WeatherData, to its client Union Pacific that a tornado was threatening two trains.

The trains were halted and the tornado passed between them without damaging either.

Although national weather services provide general forecasts of dangerous weather, it seems unlikely a national service could provide targeted forecasts of such weather threats to all potential users, with the specificity required by some operations.

The same Reuters article pointed to the existence of 300 commercial weather forecast operations targeting specific locations and industries in the US.

The field of private weather forecasting is much smaller in Australia, but opportunities surely exist for its expansion.

Clouds developing?

Of course, there are dangers in moving from a single national weather agency with responsibility for forecasting all weather threats.

The Australian BOM, for instance, did a superb job in forecasting the track and landfall of Cyclone Yasi earlier this year. If other forecast services had produced conflicting forecasts the resulting confusion may have led to increased damage or loss of life.

A balance needs to be struck between ensuring warnings of life-threatening weather don’t lead to dangerous confusion and ensuring very specific, targeted forecasts are available to organisations that want them.

The best means of striking this balance will continue to be debated by meteorologists as weather forecasts and information continues to improve.

Much will no doubt come down to the one force driving the way we predict the weather – the unstoppable evolution of technology.