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Posted at 11:15 AM ET, 02/12/2009

In Darwin's Shadow: The Inventor of Forecasting

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Today, Feb. 12th, marks the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin. Some 22 years later, in 1831, Darwin began his five-year voyage of discovery aboard the British Royal Navy's HMS Beagle. The young Darwin was serving as the ship's official naturalist, at the invitation of Captain Robert FitzRoy.

Darwin's observations, surveys and findings sparked his theory of evolution, which ultimately led to the 1859 publication of one of the most important and influential books in the annals of science, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Even 150 years later, Darwin's theory remains the fundamental cornerstone of evolutionary biology.

Much lesser known is that FitzRoy, who deeply regretted on religious grounds his role in Darwin's discoveries, enlightened Darwin on aspects of weather and climate -- factors that Darwin incorporated into his thinking about evolution and natural selection. Perhaps even more of a footnote to history is that FitzRoy later became known by many as the grandfather of weather forecasting.

Keep reading for more on Darwin, FitzRoy and the invention of forecasting...

In honor of Darwin's life and legacy there is a plethora of celebrations, exhibits, magazine articles, TV documentaries, blogs, etc. A dominant theme is Darwin's remarkable achievement in understanding the influence of environmental conditions, including variations in local weather and climate, on species and natural selection.

For example, in exploring the Galapagos Islands and its diversity of species, Darwin was shocked by the impressive geology and unusual weather of the tropics. He recognized that winds and waves have a great effect on shaping the land and remarks in his notes, "Considering that these islands are a place directly under the equator, the climate is far from being excessively hot." He rightly attributed this to the fact that the surrounding water was quite cold due to "the great southern Polar current" (known now as the Humboldt Current).

Darwin also observed that "very little rain falls, and even then it is irregular; but the clouds generally hang low. Hence, whilst the lower parts of the islands are very sterile, the upper parts, at a height of a thousand feet and upwards, possess a damp climate and tolerably luxuriant vegetation. This is especially the case on the windward sides of the islands, which first receive and condense the moisture from the atmosphere."

FitzRoy is forever linked in history with Darwin. Largely forgotten is that Fitzroy eventually emerged from Darwin's shadow to become known as the "inventor of weather forecasting."

It was FitzRoy's encounters with storms at sea that led him down the path of weather forecasting. In 1854, he wrote a memorandum describing a proposal for international cooperation in collecting weather information. He referred to preparing charts with weather observations as providing a "synoptic view" of the weather -- a synopsis of weather at the same time over a wide area -- and thereby coined the term synoptic, as in synoptic meteorology.

Also in 1854, he established a network of weather observing stations around Britain. In fact, he designed a standard barometer and thermometer now considered the earliest prototype weather station. Moreover, FitzRoy was the first to use the telegraph to link weather stations and thereby was able to compile observations in time for appearing in the same-day newspapers.

FitzRoy was among the first to understand that weather in the middle latitudes moved generally from west to east and occurred with some degree of regularity. He theorized that, in conjunction with his synoptic charts, observations of barometric pressure could be used to identify recurrent patterns that might foretell the weather at later times. This led to the debut of daily weather forecasts in newspapers. Fitzroy was, in fact, the first to even use the term "forecast," a term he coined to avoid his work being associated with prophecies of the astrological, religious or sorcerous nature.

Perhaps not surprisingly his forecasts and their science were often criticized (some things never change!). The Times of London, which ran his forecasts, was among the strongest critics, publishing once that, "During the last week, Nature seems to have taken special pleasure in confounding the conjectures of science."

By  |  11:15 AM ET, 02/12/2009

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