The ease of accessing weather forecasts today — including through smartphone apps or by engaging Alexa or Siri — has made it increasingly possible to assume that forecasts will always be there when we need them and, perhaps, always have been. But weather forecasts rooted in scientific methods, and a federally funded service to provide them, are relatively new in the larger scheme of scientific endeavors and the human experience.
It was only 150 years ago when President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law a joint resolution of Congress authorizing the secretary of war to take meteorological observations at military posts across the country and give notice of approaching storms via telegraph. In doing so, Grant created the nation’s first weather service — only the fourth in the world at the time — and helped shift the idea of weather prediction from the realm of superstition and soothsaying into that of scientific inquiry. In an age when weather information is as ubiquitous as ever, often scrutinized and even politicized, it’s easy to forget there was a time when such a service didn’t exist.
Before this shift, Americans relied primarily on almanacs, proverbs and local rules of thumb to predict the future state of the atmosphere. So strong were these traditions that the government’s own weather service — barely a decade old at the time — published a volume in 1883 titled Weather Proverbs. A note at the beginning of the publication clarified that the government’s official forecasts were “not based upon the proverbs given here, but wholly upon observations and generalizations accepted by meteorologists.”
It was technology that opened the door to new practices. The telegraph, which Samuel F.B. Morse first demonstrated to the public in 1838, allowed for the transmission of simultaneous observations of weather from distant locations, which could then be processed in time to make a useful prediction of what would transpire.
The first person to make practical use of these possibilities was a 30-year-old astronomer from New York named Cleveland Abbe, who in 1868 had taken over as director of the Cincinnati Observatory. The following year, with the support of the local chamber of commerce, Abbe began a three-month trial to create regular, practical weather forecasts based on observations he collected daily via telegraph from a network of observers.
Abbe published his predictions — which he called “probabilities” — in a local newspaper, enlisting the help of the Western Union Telegraph Company. While primitive by today’s standards, they were deemed a success and a welcome alternative to the unreliable almanacs and proverbs that prevailed at the time. Abbe later recalled writing to his father in New York to tell him, “I have started that which the country will not willingly let die.”
At the same time Abbe was developing his forecasting service in Cincinnati, one of his correspondents, a self-taught scientist in Milwaukee named Increase A. Lapham, was taking steps to help establish something on an even larger scale. After a devastating series of storms wrought unprecedented death and destruction on the Great Lakes during the fall and winter of 1869, Lapham wrote to his friend Rep. Halbert E. Paine (R-Wis.), a former Union general in the Civil War, asking for the federal government to intervene in an effort to prevent future losses.
Paine understood the need for reliable weather information to reduce the loss of life and property and recognized that, within the federal government, the military was the best equipped to carry out such work. In December 1869, he introduced the legislation that led to the creation of what we now know as the National Weather Service. The responsibility for the new service initially fell to the U.S. Army Signal Service, under the direction of General Albert J. Myer.
Myer hired Lapham as a temporary assistant to oversee the service’s operations in the Great Lakes region. The same day Myer hired him, Lapham issued the nation’s first official storm warning, on Nov. 8, 1870, giving notice of high winds along the Great Lakes. Writing to Myer from his office in Chicago a month later, Lapham said, “The members of the chamber of commerce manifest their interest in the new meteorological map, posted in their room, by gathering eagerly about it when first prepared each morning.”
Myer knew that simply providing maps and bulletins would not be sufficient. He also wanted a system of day-to-day forecasts. Popular will demanded “the publication of deductions of some kind” based upon the material his office received, Myer wrote in his 1871 annual report. In January of that year, Myer offered Abbe a full-time position as a civilian assistant in the nation’s burgeoning weather service. Expanding on his efforts in Cincinnati, Abbe set to work establishing a system of tri-daily forecasts for the entire nation, based on observations collected by Army observer-sergeants stationed at posts across the country. He practiced his technique for a month before issuing the first official public forecasts for the nation on Feb. 19, 1871.
Over the course of the next century, the science of meteorology — aided by technological advancements and increased federal support — grew by leaps and bounds. During the first half of the 20th century, advancements in knowledge of how the atmosphere works led to improvements in forecasts and warnings, thanks, in part, to technological developments that were byproducts of other endeavors. World War II, for example, gave us the first radars, originally used for detecting enemy aircraft. The Space Age saw the launch of the first satellites, which provided birds-eye views of clouds moving across the globe. Meanwhile, the Cold War produced early electronic computers that were used to calculate trajectories of ballistic missiles, leading to the forecast models we rely on today.
Today’s forecasts rely on the latest advancements in science and technology, including multibillion-dollar geostationary and polar-orbiting satellites and numerical weather prediction models with advanced algorithms running on sophisticated supercomputers capable of processing quadrillions of calculations per second. Improvements in predictive capabilities over the years have helped forecasters gain about one day of accuracy per decade. In other words, a five-day forecast today is, on average, about as accurate as a three-day forecast was 20 years ago.
As we mark the sesquicentennial of the nation’s weather service and embrace future advances in meteorological research and development, it is critical that we do not become complacent with the plethora of weather data available today — or its unmatched accuracy. The dedicated forecasters who work for the National Weather Service and throughout the private sector possess specialized education and years of experience. These men and women work tirelessly to help keep us safe, informed and weather-savvy. They deserve our collective thanks, as do the pioneers who labored a century and a half ago to make the dream of reliable weather forecasting a reality.