The National Weather Service began as a crowd-sourcing experiment | Science


Illustration by Lucille Clerc

For centuries humans have complained about the weather. In 1848, the Smithsonian Institution decided to do something. The weather conditions had been considered to be either God’s will or explainable only by house phrases like “Clear moon, frost soon” or by observing, say, the behavior of ants, which dislike the rain. The The Farmer’s Almanac promised readers more accurate predictions when it began in 1818, but even those predictions were determined by a “secret formula.” And still are.

Joseph Henry, the first secretary of the Smithsonian, tried something new: crowdsourcing. The facility handed over weather monitoring equipment such as thermometers, barometers and rain gauges to 150 volunteer observers across the country. Each day, their localized reports came by telegraph, and the Smithsonian generated a national weather map and posted it on the National Mall. The card has become a popular attraction. Tourists who saw it, noted Henry, “seemed particularly interested in the weather conditions their friends back home were subjected to at the time.”

A fun novelty, but no consolation for these pioneers crossing North America, the continent with the most violent climates on the planet. Just two years earlier, 42 members of the Donner Party had perished in an early snowfall in the Sierra Nevada that they had no way of predicting.

Over time, the number of Smithsonian volunteers grew to over 600. Technology improved, and listeners slowly found ways to determine what crude climate data collected over the Denver skies might soon mean for the. Chicago and New York skies as time moved east. Reports of temperature, humidity, wind and cloud formations have poured in. Yet data did not always reach the right place at the right time. For example, on the Great Lakes, 97 ships were lost in a four-day gale in 1869.

The National Weather Service began as a crowd-sourcing experiment

Agriculture Secretary Howard Gore, left, and Charles Marvin, head of the US Weather Bureau, view a map of weather stations, c. 1924. The office was the forerunner of the NWS.

Library of Congress

In the year following this tragedy, President Ulysses S. Grant signed a resolution establishing the Telegrams and Reports Division for the Benefit of Commerce. The Smithsonian’s weather observation network was handed over to the military, which began issuing official forecasts capable of seeing, even vaguely, 24 hours in advance. The threat of sudden weather disasters has diminished. Maritime trade has improved considerably; doing business in America increasingly meant knowing the weather ahead. The division would become the National Weather Service, which is part of the Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

America’s first weather balloons took flight in 1909, improving the study of temperature, humidity, and atmospheric pressure. Another breakthrough came in the 1920s when balloons were fitted with radio transmitters and real-time observation of the stratosphere became possible. For the first time, researchers observed not only the width of a weather system but also its height. During World War II, radar operators noticed interference patterns aligned with heavy weather on their screens, and the science of radar meteorology took off and is still in use today.

Some mid-20th century weather scientists were so confident they believed the sky could be manipulated by chemically altering the atmosphere. Tailor-made weather, they thought, would bring rain to farmland, snow to ski resorts. However, that pipe dream did not come to fruition, and Americans today are delighted to be content with smartphone weather apps, powered by an NWS computer and satellite data, which provide precise information that they can instantly access to stay safe. The three-day average hurricane landing forecast can now identify a much more specific band of coastline at risk – 100 miles in 2020, up from 300 miles in 1990 – reducing stress and the cost of false alarms. During the same period, the average tornado warning time has decreased from 5 minutes to 8 to 10 minutes.

Will climate change erode our confidence in daily weather forecasts? Not in the short term, says Beth Carpenter, meteorologist and co-founder of Thermodynamic Solutions, an Indianapolis-based company. “Climate change by itself will not affect weather modeling because the timescales are very different. We forecast on a much smaller timescale, typically only up to three months at a time for the longer term seasonal forecast. Climatic periods are defined as average conditions over 30 years.

The weather in North America is no less violent than it was when the oblivious Donner Parties boarded their prairie schooners before succumbing, victims of what Joseph Henry would call “the American storm problem. “. But the NWS, which now has 4,000 workers, will continue to find safer ways to live with them. It’s sunny weather wherever you are.


Some ingenious ways to get a fix on atmospheric conditions
and even the earth’s crust

By Shi En Kim

Reading a rain gauge in the 1920s. The ancients kept track of precipitation, but 17th-century Englishman Richard Towneley was known for his systematic measurements, noting “how uncomplicated this task is.”
Library of Congress

A snow gauge, in the North-West in 1917. A quantity of snow collected over a given period of time has been melted. The volume of water indicated the depth of the snow cover.
Library of Congress

An early meteorograph, a device that combines and maps many variables at once, such as temperature, precipitation, and barometric pressure.
Library of Congress

A pilot balloon filled with helium or hydrogen, around 1943, rose at a predictable rate; it measured the speed and direction of the wind, as well as the altitude of the clouds.
Library of Congress

Meteorologists have used a searchlight and a theodolite, as surveyors use, to measure the height of cloud cover. The value was derived by triangulating the light source, the reflection on the ceiling, and a nearby stationary object.
Library of Congress

In this early 20th century seismograph, a pendulum weight suspended from the end of the horizontal bar responded proportionally to an earthquake and marked the rotating disc.
Library of Congress


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