If you’re shivering under the Beast from the East, the first thing you probably checked on your phone this morning was a weather app. (Spoiler: it’s cold)
Weather was also one of the first ever apps run on the first computer, back in 1950. The transformation of weather forecasting by technology since has been miraculous. It’s also one we take largely for granted.
Before the 1950s, weather forecasts were a haphazard affair. The Met Office was set up in 1854. Five years later, a huge storm in the Irish Sea wrecked 200 ships, killing more than 800 people; 450 people died in one shipwreck alone, the Royal Charter.
In response, the Met Office created the first gale warning service, made up of 15 stations. Technology was important even in the early days though. The telegraph let stations feed their data to give a wider picture and also meant weather warnings could be delivered quicker.
Prediction was harder, though. Lewis Fry Richardson, an English mathematician, came up with a proposal in 1922 for predicting the weather by ‘Numerical Process’.
The problem was the enormous amount of work it would take. He estimated that it would take 64,000 people – known then as ‘computers’ – to work out a one day forecast.
Actually, according to research done in the 1990s, it would have required closer to a million workers.
So the method was there but not the means. That changed with the Second World War. Alongside the breakthroughs of the Colossus code-breaking computer in the UK, the US war machine had developed its own computer, ENIAC.
This was the first general purpose digital computer, commissioned to help the US Army work out artillery trajectories and later in the development of the hydrogen bomb.
But its creators also realised it could be used to put Richardson’s theory into practice and programmed ENIAC to run the first numerical weather forecast – the first digital weather app.
Forecasters rushed to use computers, combing them with observations from new radar technology (also developed during the war).
The results have been astounding – and they keep improving. In 1981, the average three day forecast was around 80 per cent accurate.
Today it’s more than 95 per cent, according to a 2015 paper published in Nature, which described numerical weather prediction as a “quiet revolution”.
A three day forecast today is more accurate than a one day forecast in 1980. Satellite technology has gave forecasting another boost. The Met Office now records 215 billion weather observations every day.
Accurate weather predictions save lives, help emergency response and prevent economic losses.
But these systems are also towering achievements in their own right. As Professor Cliff Mass, a meteorologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, told the New Yorker: “Weather-prediction systems are probably the most complex systems our species has put together.
“They’re extraordinary, one of mankind’s greatest creations; we’re simulating from the atomic scale to the planetary scale.”
New technology will push those models even further. Machine-learning is being deployed to improve accuracy and even discover new weather patterns by sifting through the vast amounts of data. AI will be also be used to test different models of climate change.
And the way most of us will experience all of that that will be an app on our phone. A quiet revolution indeed.
Sky Views is a series of comment pieces by Sky News editors and correspondents, published every morning.
Previously on Sky Views: Katie Stallard-Blanchette – The myth of the benevolent strongman