Predicting the future is a hazardous venture. Western Union initially scorned the new-fangled invention of telephones, and the chairman of IBM once envisaged a world market for five computers. Adding to the list of misjudgements, Peter Moore reveals in this thought-provoking book the parliamentary mockery greeting an MP who promised in 1854 that reliable weather forecasts would soon be available. Not for the last time, the House of Commons got it wrong: a century and a half later, Britain’s Meteorological Office has more than 1,700 employees and a budget of over £80 million.
As Moore wisely reflects, meteorology can never be an exact science: the only thing we know for certain about the future is the impossibility of predicting it perfectly. Even with modern technology, there would probably have been no way of foreseeing the human-induced 1814 London Beer Flood, in which eight people drowned after vast wooden vats collapsed, swamping the parish of St Giles with over one million litres of beer. In contrast, forecasts of natural deluges have been improving steadily. In 1703, an apocalyptic Great Storm took England completely by surprise, killing around three thousand people because, in the absence of advance notice, no preventive measures had been taken. By the middle of the 19th century, official storm warnings were accurate just over half the time. Modern predictions of imminent disaster are almost always right. But only almost: we have become so used to accepting meteorologists’ pronouncements as gospel that earlier this year Mayor Bill de Blasio closed down New York in an unfortunate bid to protect the city against snow drifts that failed to materialise.
The Greek origins of the word ‘meteorology’ indicate that trying to foretell the weather is nothing new. In Aristotle’s model, the universe was divided, like a two-tiered gobstopper, into the heavens – where the planets serenely rotated in orderly circles – and the central chaotic terrestrial sphere, the skies of which extended out as far as the moon’s orbit, home not only to birds, clouds and rainbows, but also to meteors. Like other transient phenomena, such as comets, meteors were often interpreted as messages from God. Only gradually were they relegated from terrestrial to astronomical science.
Following the invention of thermometers, barometers and other measuring instruments, Enlightenment gentlemen attempted to rationalise the cosmos, faithfully recording everything and anything that might help establish regular patterns of behaviour. To their humiliation, despite investing in the latest equipment, these meticulous observers were outperformed by illiterate farmers and sailors drawing on decades of experience. Even frogs and farm animals seemed more prescient, apparently possessing a sixth sense about trouble lying ahead. Self-styled experts remained fallible, especially when viewed in hindsight: in 1938, a British steam engineer correctly calculated that industrially generated carbon dioxide would cause the earth’s temperature to rise, but concluded that the extra few degrees would help ward off an impending ice age.
Rather like the weather diarists striving to impose order on unruly phenomena, Moore marshals his solidly researched historical information into a neat pattern, as if progress were destined to follow a preordained, systematic plan. Somewhat whimsically, he likens the successive achievements of a single project to the passing times of day – thus dawn is seeing and midday is experimenting. While the introductory chapters describe the late 18th century, the real focus of his book is the Victorian era, when data gatherers sought to make themselves sound professional by calling themselves meteorologists. Moore’s chief hero is Robert FitzRoy, the foul-tempered captain of the Beagle, who nearly prevented Charles Darwin from travelling to the South Atlantic because his nose was the wrong shape and who believed that dinosaurs became extinct because they were too cumbersome to climb up the steps into Noah’s ark. Darwin thought that ‘his brain needed mending’, but FitzRoy made crucial contributions to the development of storm warning systems that would save the lives of countless British sailors, even though he encountered repeated obstacles when trying to implement his ambitious plans.
Arnold Toynbee once railed against the view that ‘History is just one damned thing after another’. Recording weather data day in, day out must feel like just one damned temperature reading after another. Yet Moore has skilfully converted decades of routine monotony into a gripping tale of derring-do. Much of the action takes place at sea, punctuated by dramatic episodes of meteorological turbulence and psychological disaster, including FitzRoy’s descent into his own private hell. The story is carried forward by larger-than-life characters of aristocratic mien, ‘dashing and fiercely capable’, endowed with ‘unkempt, greying hair’, their faces ‘shining with boyish vigour’.
Moore’s adventurers were important in meteorology’s past, but, as he explains, so too were the machines on which they relied. Weather prediction is essentially a number-crunching exercise: the more numbers you have and the faster you can crunch them, the greater chance you have of producing an accurate forecast. Technological innovations that were originally introduced for other purposes have transformed meteorological science. For instance, telegraph systems were first developed to send military information during the Napoleonic period, but modern versions make possible both the collection of large volumes of weather data and the transmission of timely warnings. Similarly, early computers were oriented towards military and commercial purposes, but they have also dramatically improved weather forecasting.
Even the most sophisticated computer programs are unable to cater for the knock-on effects of a butterfly flapping its wings, and it is this inherent uncertainty in prediction that enables deniers of global warming to make their voices heard. But given the impossibility of being 100 per cent sure, it makes sense to heed forecasts that are probably right. At the end of this rich and informative breeze through the storms of the past, Moore exhorts his readers to forestall future greenhouse disaster by terminating our risky experiment on the world we inhabit: ‘We can have faith in the science or we can let nature take its course.’