Getting the word out

So you're wondering if it's going to rain tomorrow. You pick up the paper and find a weather report that's a sea of typography. The local forecast must be bobbing around somewhere in there, but you can't find it straight away. You hop onto the Internet and come up against a hundred different Web pages with tomorrow's outlook. Some of them say it'll rain; others say it won't You turn on the TV and find yourself flying with the weathercaster through the innards of a great cloud mass somewhere off at sea. You learn there's a 50 percent chance this system will bring you rain tomorrow. Does that mean it'll rain for 12 out of 24 hours, or that half of your city will get wet – or that you could flip a coin and come away with just as much information?

As with so many other aspects of our choice-crazy culture, the challenge involved in accessing weather information isn't actually in finding it, but in deciding how much of it you can process. What used to be “the forecast” – meaning just one – has metamorphosed into unlimited weather on demand. As recently as the 1980s, the choices were far fewer and their presentation was far more drab.

Although todays smorgasbord of data and forecasts may be intimidating, it's also a spectacular success story. In the 1940s, apart from a few scattered examples, the best minds of meteorology were hard-pressed to offer useful predictions for more than a day or so in advance. The concept of cold and warm fronts was foreign to most people. Then came the arrival of computers, radars, satellites and television, all of which rose to prominence between the mid-1940s and mid-1960s. The Internet followed in the 1990s. Together, these tools and media have made a world of difference in creating useful forecasts and getting them to the public.

Despite the perennial role of the forecaster as whipping boy (if not comic relief), forecasts on the whole are better than ever. Large-scale weather shifts can often be seen a week in advance, even if the details aren't crystal-clear. And people do pay attention. Weather is consistently the most-watched part of the local news in the US, and the weather section is the most viewed part of the BBC's website. Part of this thirst for weather information is undoubtedly due to mobility. More and more people live and travel far from their childhood homes, so they tune in to see the kind of weather that is affecting their relatives or the town where they plan to fly to on business.

Before the advent of television, hundreds and even thousands of people were killed by big storms almost every year in North America and Europe. Now it's rare for a weather event to take more than a hundred lives in either region (Hurricane Katrina and the 2003 European heat wave notwithstanding). Sadly, this isn't the case in many developing countries, where communications links are fragile and millions of people live in meteorological harm's way.

From psychic reading to forecast

Soothsayers have always been willing to speculate about future weather (a tradition that continues in US tabloids, where the biblical end times are forever at hand). Weather proverbs have always had their grains of truth. However, the art of predicting the weather based on physical law is surprisingly recent. Even after reliable techniques began to take shape in the late nineteenth century, the age of electronic mass communications had to arrive to make real the notion of the timely weather forecast available to all. Aristotle's classical view of meteorology held sway for some 1500 years.

This conventional wisdom saw weather as a phenomenon controlled by the interaction of sunlight and the planets with exhalations, vapours and other elements drawn up from the land and sea The very word “meteorology” refers to meteors, but in a much broader sense than today – not just rocks from space, but rain, snow and everything else that blows through the atmosphere.

The earliest published weather outlooks appeared in almanacs, beginning in the 1500s. Two of the most popular by the eighteenth century were Old Moores Almanac in Britain and An Almanack for the Year 17XX in the colonial US. (Variations can be found to this day, such as the venerable US competitors The Farmers Almanac and The Old Farmers Almanac.) These forecasts relied heavily on a blend of astronomical tables and weather signs linked to the calendar and the position of the planets. For instance, fair weather was believed to follow if the fourth night after a new moon was clear. People also looked to holidays and saints' days for guidance to the weather. The day of the week on which Christmas fell, for example, was sometimes used to predict whether the coming winter would be mild or stormy.

The invention of basic weather instruments and the age of exploration slowly changed things. Scientists seized on new data and began forging theories of storm behaviour and motion. Once weather reports from a variety of points were assembled, the connections that tied local weather to a larger scale were harder to ignore.

The Internet of its day – the electric telegraph – arrived in 1844, as the message “What hath God wrought!” made its way in dots and dashes from Washington to Baltimore. For the first time, people could paint a coherent picture of the weather across a vast nation on the same day that the weather occurred. The British marvelled at the world's first up-to-the-minute (or up-to-the-day, at least) weather map in 1851, when it debuted at London's Great Exhibition in Hyde Park. For a penny, visitors could take away a map of the British Isles that showed observations relayed to the site by train and telegraph. Later in the 1850s, you could drop by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, and check out a wall-mounted map showing the day's reports from several dozen stations from New York to New Orleans. In 1863, France became the first country to publish daily weather maps; other nations soon followed The Civil War delayed America's development of weather forecasting for a few years, while a psychological war had the same effect in Britain. Captain Robert FitzRoy, who had commanded The Beagle – on which Charles Darwin sailed around the world carrying out research in the 1830s – was named the first head of the Meteorological Department of the British Board of Trade (soon to become the Meteorological Office) in 1854. Although the science of weather forecasting was still in its infancy, FitzRoy was tireless in promoting it. On August 1, 1861, the Met. Office published the world's first public forecast: the next day's wind and weather for four UK districts.

Published in the London Times, the outlooks were an instant hit. However, FitzRoy was censured by scientific societies who felt the state of meteorology was then too immature for forecasts to be of any real merit. FitzRoy later spent several years fruitlessly seeking a grand theory to connect solar variations with weather. Discouraged and in ill health, he committed suicide on April 30, 1865. Suddenly devoid of FitzRoys enthusiasm and with little support elsewhere, the Met. Office soon suspended its forecasts. They didn't resume until the 1870s.

Weather for the masses

Weather forecasts came to America in the 1870s with the establishment of the National Weather Service. Part of the military at first, it soon became the US Weather Bureau, a name that stuck till the 1970s. Using data from the NWS, the New York Times began carrying a small section that summarized the previous day's weather and gave official “indications” of the regional conditions to come. By 1900, the weather ear – a front-page box with a terse forecast – had made its way into newspapers.

Oddly enough, it took several more decades for weather maps to carve out their now familiar niche in US papers. The London Times launched the world's first daily map in 1875, and it was still going strong in the early years of the 21st century. Maps appeared in newspapers around the world as government weather services blossomed. However, in the already vast and still growing United States, it proved tougher to compile data, map it to the government's satisfaction, and get it to far-flung newspapers in time to make deadlines. The maps were expensive for papers to reproduce and hard for some readers to interpret. Yet the government mailed millions of maps each year from local weather offices to anyone who asked for them. Things changed quickly in 1910, when a national system for routing simplified maps from the US Weather Bureau to newspapers proved wildly successful Internal politics soon dashed the new system, however, and the weather map again disappeared from most US newspapers until 1935. That year the Associated Press started distributing its own version of the official daily map by facsimile to its member papers nationwide. These small, simple, black- and-white maps were the state of the art until USA Today debuted in 1982.

That newspapers flashy, full-page weather section was derided at first, but it proved so popular that most other US papers had to upgrade their own weather sections to compete.

In the 1920s, newspapers met with new competition in the form of radio when the BBC transmitted its first public weather forecast on November 14, 1922; by 1924 more than a hundred US stations offered radio weather. Some stations linked personality and credibility to create a new persona, the “weatherman”, who visited your home each day and told you what to expect On Bostons WEEI radio station, E В Rideout and his daily reports were a fixture from the 1920s into the 1960s. Meteorologist Jim Fidler launched his radio career in Muncie, Indiana, in 1934 by appealing to truckers, builders, farmers (“We plan our work by your reports”, read one testimonial) and housewives (“I'm going to wash tomorrow – Jimmie said the sun will shine”). Fidler later became the first weatherman on NBC's morning TV programme Today.

TV gets in the act

To help keep potentially useful details out of enemy hands, censors put a brief, but dramatic, hold on public weather information during World War II. Newspapers in the US weren't allowed to publish forecasts for regions more than 250km/150 miles away. Even as the government clamped down, a new medium waited in the wings: television. The BBC first tested weather text on television in 1936, and an experimental New York station launched the first TV weatherperson in 1941 – Wooly Lamb, a cartoon character who opened each segment by singing, “It's hot, it's cold. It's rain, it's fair. It's all mixed up together.”

As television exploded in the 1950s, TV weather became part of the daily newscast. This time, the US led the way. The BBC launched its first live TV weather segment in 1954. At about the same time, American programmers discovered they could use weather as lighthearted relief from the rest of the day's news. Meteorologist Percy Saltzman had already delivered weather for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation using three puppets. Soon the US airwaves were swamped by costumes, animals, rhymesters and weather “girls”. As many as a third of US weathercasters in the mid-1950s were women, many of them apparently recruited for their sex appeal. One in New York tucked herself into bed on camera each night while discussing tomorrow's forecast. Another, clad in a swimsuit, gave her reports while immersed in a huge tank of water.

Thankfully, the medium soon matured. A “seal of approval” programme was launched by the American xMeteorological Society in 1960, so viewers could tell which weathercasters had the credentials to provide a serious weather report (including bona fide female meteorologists, whose numbers increased slowly but surely from the 1970s onward). Clowning didn't vanish from TV weather overnight, however. Willard Scott became a fixture on NBC's Today show in the 1980s, dressing as Carmen Miranda and Boy George in between forecasts. In Australia, Melbourne's popular Edwin Maher maintained a good-humoured atmosphere to his ABC reports into the 1990s, even recording a weather rap (“Your Weekend's Gonna be Ruined”) with musicians Captain Jellybeard & the Scurvy Dogs. But more and more, the increasing sophistication and pizzazz of weather graphics in the 1980s and 1990s – such as colourful satellite and radar images – allowed weathercasters to stand back and let the weather itself take centre stage.

American-style goofmess never invaded the lower-key weather presentations of the BBC, although in 2000 the network launched a major graphical revamp of its weather broadcasts. This included one of the most dramatic visual innovations of recent years: “fly-throughs” that simulate a three-dimensional trip through a weather map or satellite photo. Sticklers gripe that these images vastly distort the vertical scale of weather features, since most of the broad low-pressure centres that bring bad weather are about a hundred times wider than they are tall. Another round of brickbats flew in 2005 when the BBC added a 3-D perspective to the map itself. Southern England and Wales now loomed perpetually large compared to Scotland, a fact noted with distaste by more than a few Scots. The same graphical trick is increasingly common on US television, which gives Texas and Florida dis-proportionate heft compared to, say, North Dakota or New England.

Americas thirst for weather information has made The Weather Channel a cable-TV institution, ranking with CNN and ESPN as one of the most widely available cable outlets in US households. Few gave the channel much hope for survival after its 1982 debut. Gradually, however, viewers and advertisers came around and the channel now reaches more than 70 million homes. The core programming originates from studios in Atlanta, Georgia, while local conditions and forecasts are relayed by satellite and inserted by hundreds of cable systems about every ten minutes.

Where does it come from?

Most weather information is relayed to the public by private companies through TV, radio, newspaper and the Internet, but it's not always apparent how much these sources rely on the government. Each nation's weather system varies in its degree of private involvement. New Zealand has one of the worlds most privatized – its stated mission is to “grow a commercially successful business”. At the other extreme, some TV weathercasts in Italy are delivered by military meteorologists in uniform. The US is something of a hybrid: it has the worlds largest government weather service, operating side by side with more than one hundred private forecast providers. By and large, it is the government agencies that take and gather weather observations, exchange them among the rest of the world's countries, and operate most of the computer models that guide most forecasting decisions – whether they're made by a faceless government worker, or by that amiable weathercaster you watch over coffee each morning.

Thanks to its big population, geographic reach, hyperactive weather and media-saturated culture, the US employs far more people to dispense weather news than any other country. Even with the Internet, local TV weathercasters are still a key source of tomorrow's forecast – and meteorologists are probably the only scientists that people see on TV on a daily basis.

There are more than 1000 on-air weathercasters in the US, while Britain has about fifty at best. Perhaps half of America's weathercasters have meteorological training, typically adding their own insight to the official forecasts and model data provided largely by the National Weather Service. Non-meteorologists on-air are perhaps more likely to adhere to the government forecasts, although they may or may not acknowledge the debt. Warnings for hurricanes, tornadoes and other severe weather are issued by the government and passed on more or less verbatim at virtually all stations. The US also employs hundreds of other meteorologists in the private sector, many of them working in liaison with newspapers, TV and radio stations. One of the biggest of these private companies is Accu-weather in State College, Pennsylvania, which claims to have the most forecasters assembled at one place (close to one hundred). Most US TV stations have arrangements with Accu-weather or some other partner from the private sector. At a minimum, these companies provide software that allows a weathercaster to create his or her own graphics. For those stations that want or need more input, private firms can provide ready-made displays and interpretation of the output from government models (a few private companies produce their own models as well). Accu-weather also has a stable of its own radio and TV weathercasters. For over thirty years they've furnished segments that are fed live or spliced on tape into local news bulletins around the country. Similarly, many news-papers have weather sections created wholesale each day by private firms that may be hundreds of miles away.

Britain's weather culture is dominated by the Met. Office. The weathercasters on the BBC's various outlets are actually Met. Office employees (mostly meteorologists) stationed at the network. Elsewhere on TV, radio and in the newspapers, a mix of Met Office and private contractors furnishes the weather information. Much of the TV weather in Australia and Europe reflects the British rather than the American paradigm European countries typically have one government TV channel and a few commercial outlets. Weathercasters tend to be meteorologists, some employed by weather agencies and others by the TV stations themselves. In Australia, both public and private sources provide weather graphics, but weathercasters tend to use the official forecasts from the Bureau of Meteorology.

Whatever the source of their information, TV weathercasters would be shooting themselves in the foot if they didn't avail themselves of the wealth of weather data the Internet offers. The Internet has illuminated a long-standing tension between the principle of free data exchange – and the desire of governments and private weather services to make money from the weather. In order to preserve this balance, the United Nations and its World Meteorological Organization passed a resolution in 1995 allowing countries to withhold some of their less critical data from free international exchange. Still, many of the observations and computer-model results produced around the world can be found on the Web, a practice that originated with meteorology departments at a handful of US universities and now includes many national weather agencies.