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150 years since the first UK weather "forecast"

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Helen Czerski Helen Czerski | 08:00 UK time, Monday, 1 August 2011

Distance travelled ~ 546'291'200 km

Victorian England in 1861 must have been a brilliantly exciting place to live. Fabulous inventions and intriguing new scientific ideas were popping out of the population like endless possibility popcorn. London was the largest city in the world, the theory of evolution was being debated in Oxford, Maxwell had just written down the fundamental equations of light, and solar flares and Neanderthal fossils had just been discovered.

first forecast issued by the Met Office on 1st August 1861

Image courtesy of the Met Office

(The forecast itself appears immediately below the table of station data and consists of the following:

General weather probably for the next two days in the-
North-Moderate westerly wind; fine.
West - Moderate south-westerly; fine.
South - Fresh westerly; fine
. )

But no-one really knew much about large scale weather patterns. Weather just happened. Every year an enormous number of lives were lost at sea, as ships sailed into storms and never sailed out again. In the late 1850s there was the first hint of a possibility of changing this situation because communications technology had just taken an enormous leap. The electric telegraph now made it possible to collect weather observations from all over England, assemble them and send them out again to whoever needed to know, all in less than a day.

Telling people what had happened was useful, but not as useful as telling them what was going to happen. The man who made the first attempt to bridge that gap, and who coined the phrase "weather forecast", was Admiral Robert Fitzroy. Thirty years before, he had been captain of the Beagle voyage that carried Charles Darwin, so he was no stranger to the perils of weather when at sea. In 1854, Fitzroy was given the job of collecting data on weather at sea, leading what later became the Met Office. After a few years, he saw that weather systems could be tracked. He became convinced that predictions were possible and that storm warnings would save many lives. His bosses did not agree that predictions were realistic, but in spite of them Fitzroy started to issue storm warnings in 1861. Then, on the 1st of August 1861 (exactly 150 years ago), Fitzroy issued the first ever weather forecast for the general public, published in The Times. This earned him a slap on the wrist and a huge amount of criticism, because it was considered that the forecasts could not possibly be accurate. After a lot of debate, the public forecasts ended in 1866.

I think that you have to admire Fitzroy for trying. He saw the big picture, and walked the first few steps along a very hard path. Even now, when we have a sky full of satellites and enormous computational weather models, we don't always get it right.

In the end though, Fitzroy was given the most appropriate recognition possible. When the region that used to be known as Finisterre on the shipping forecast was renamed in 2002, they decided that it would be called Fitzroy. So now, four times a day on longwave radio, Fitzroy's name is broadcast to all shipping in the vicinity of the United Kingdom. Next time you hear "Trafalgar, Fitzroy, Sole, Lundy..." as you fall asleep, think of the man who started the journey towards the weather forecasts we all take for granted today.

(With thanks to Malcolm Walker of the Royal Meteorological Society's History Group for his help with information about the history of Fitzroy's contribution)

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