A Brief History of Weather Forecasting

January 27, 2014

Say what you want about weather forecasts today, but they are far more accurate than they were 50 years ago, even 20 years ago. Technological advances in measuring and tracking weather patterns have transformed forecasting.

My story on the history of forecasting, part of a series of articles marking the 250th anniversary of what today is The Hartford Courant, appeared in the paper yesterday and remains available at Courant.com.

For many hundreds of years, of course, the most accurate forecast was not much of a forecast at all – step outside to see if it is hot or cold, wet or dry, windy or still. Dark clouds approaching? Here comes a thunderstorm.

Even in 1764, when the first edition of the Courant appeared and by which time thermometers and barometers actually existed, though few people had them, forecasting was primitive.

“You have to put yourself in the Colonial mindset. You would know the clouds, you could tell if the sky was lowering, if the wind was changing,” said James Rodger Fleming, professor of science, technology and society at Colby College in Maine and a leading authority on the history of weather forecasting.

“A lot of people relied on folklore, looking to nature for any indication of what the coming season might be like,” said Sean Potter, a meteorologist and communications specialist with the National Weather Service in Silver Spring, Md. The width of the brown stripes on wooly bear caterpillars in the late fall was supposed to foretell whether the coming winter would be harsh or not. Wide stripe, mild winter.

An early ice-out suggested a mild spring. Snow and cold on Thanksgiving? Ominous.

But follow the path of a hurricane for a week, knowing practically to the hour when it will hit a certain location? Impossible.

People of course have long been interested in the weather and weather forecasting and talk about the weather all the time.

One of the most famous weather-related quotations ever published appeared in an editorial in The Courant in 1897. The editorial noted that “a well-known American writer said once that, while everybody talked about the weather, nobody seemed to do anything about it.”

That quote is attributed either to Mark Twain, who at the time was living in Hartford, or his close friend and neighbor, Charles Dudley Warner, another famous American author of the time who also was the editor of The Courant and is assumed to have written the editorial.

Was Warner referring to himself third person, or to his buddy and neighbor Twain, as many assume?

Steve Courtney of the Terryville section of Plymouth is an author and Twain historian who thinks the evidence suggests the source of the quote is actually Twain.

“It really has the ring of Mark Twain,” Courtney said. “And Warner seems to hint it is him.”

By the time Twain was living in Hartford’s West End, weather forecasts were produced daily by the precursor to the National Weather Service. They could be helpful on a very short-term basis, or not. “General indications of weather expected the next day was about all there was,” Fleming said.

In a speech in New York in 1876, Twain had some fun with the quality of those New England weather forecasts of the time.

A forecaster in New England, Twain said, “mulls it over, and by and by he gets out something about like this: Probable nor-east to sou-west winds, varying to the southard and westard and eastard and points in between; high and low barometer, sweeping around from place to place, probable areas of rain, snow, hail and drought, succeeded or preceded by earthquakes, with thunder and lightning.” This was followed by a roar of laughter from the crowd, according to a report in the New York Times.

The Snowy Owl Phenomenon

Dec. 30, 2013

Farmington, Ct.

A snowy owl atop a power pole in Essex this month. Photo courtesy of Keith Mueller. Click to enlarge.

A snowy owl atop a power pole in Essex this month. Photo courtesy of Keith Mueller. Click to enlarge.

A strikingly showy arctic owl species rarely seen in Connecticut is appearing in extraordinary numbers this winter, perhaps the biggest influx of the species in 50 or more years.

Snowy owls, big birds of prey with white plumage and yellow eyes, have been seen throughout the state in recent weeks, including West Hartford, Hebron and Bloomfield, but especially along the coast from Westport to Stonington.

“Basically, they are just everywhere,” said Patrick M. Comins, director of bird conservation for Audubon Connecticut, the state office of the National Audubon Society.

My article on the snowy owl phenomenon this winter appears today on the front page of The Hartford Courant.

In a typical winter a few snowy owls might appear in Connecticut, but this year there may be two or three dozen.

A snowy owl portrait by artist Paula Bender of Avon. Click to enlarge.

A snowy owl portrait by artist Paula Bender of Avon. Click to enlarge.

What brings snowy owls from the Arctic to southern New England is thought to be a lack of food in the tundra, their habitat. Snowy owls feed on lemmings and voles. That lack of food likely is a factor in the irruption, as these out-of-range migrations are called, is suggested by the condition of some but not all of the owls. Several owls that appeared to be dying have been trapped and brought to A Place Called Hope in Killingworth, a raptor rehabilitation center. They were emaciated birds, one of which was so starved it could not be saved.

Chris Elphick, an ornithologist and associate professor in the University of Connecticut’s department of ecology and evolutionary biology, said it appeared to have been a big year for lemmings in parts of the Arctic and, because food was plentiful when young owls were born, their survival rates may have been higher than in a more typical year.

That may have been unfortunate for the owls. Audubon’s Comins said one possible explanation for the southerly movement of large numbers of owls is that severe Arctic weather during July may have killed many of the lemmings and voles, suddenly depleting the food supply for the abundant young owls, leaving them vulnerable and forcing them to fly long distances in search of food.

A Fall Foliage Hike with Yoga

October 9, 2013

Asters are among the common Connecticut woodland wildflowers that bloom in early fall.

Asters are among the common Connecticut woodland wildflowers that bloom in early fall. Click to enlarge.

Yoga teacher Leslie Gordon, co-owner of the Be.Yoga studio in Avon, and I will host a fall foliage hike followed by yoga on Monday, Columbus Day, beginning at 8 a.m. at Penwood State Park on the Bloomfield-Simsbury line. We’ll follow the yellow-blazed trail from the state park parking area on the north side of Route 185, hiking a total of slightly more than 3 miles.

The weather forecast calls for a dry, crisp fall day, perfect for hiking. From the Metacomet Ridge hikers can expect sweeping views of the Farmington Valley and brilliant fall foliage color.

We’ll gather at the parking lot at 8 a.m. After the hike, the group will travel the short distance to the elegant Be.Yoga studio, 17 West Main St., Avon, where Leslie will lead the group in soothing yoga postures for legs, feet and hips. We expect to finish by noon. Pre-registation is required. Detailed information on what to bring will be sent once you register. Cost is $17 per person, or use your Be-Yoga class card.

Check the Be.Yoga website to register and for information on Leslie and her studio. A state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection map of Penwood State Park includes the yellow-blazed trail and shows the location of the parking area off Route 185.