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Forecasts Take More Than The Roll of Dice: History of Meteorology

As AccuWeather celebrates its 50th anniversary, we reflect on the developments of how the company has been a leader in the rapidly changing weather industry over the past 50 years.

Incredible advancements in technology and distribution of weather forecasts over the past 50 years allow meteorologists to convey a wealth of weather information today.

Early records of studying the weather date back several centuries. Ben Franklin, for instance, was famous for his kite-flying experiment, in which he discovered lightning was electricity. Over the course of his life, Franklin made several other keen observations of how the weather worked such as the movement of storms versus wind direction.

However, even during World War II and the 1950s, there were no weather satellites or radar images to give meteorologists the big picture of weather patterns across the globe.

Meteorologists painstakingly plotted weather data from widely scattered observation sites and analyzed weather maps by hand.

It was a labor-intensive process, according to Dr. Charlie Hosler, who first became a meteorologist while in the Navy during World War II. Since then, Hosler worked at Penn State as a professor of meteorology, the head of the meteorology department and the dean of the Earth and Mineral Science College.

Leader in the Field: Timeline of AccuWeather Technology

"It was really tough," Hosler said of the early days of meteorology. "You really had to understand the structure of the atmosphere and its dynamics and physics. I had a lot of imagination because you had very few data points. It was like an elephant standing behind a barn and all you can see is its tail and you've never seen an elephant before so you'd have trouble describing the elephant."

Hosler was based in the Pacific during World War II with the task of monitoring weather, including typhoons.

"Sometimes in the Pacific we would have three or four typhoons, and we wouldn't know where they were. It was very sketchy information," Hosler added.

How Technology Has Changed the Field of Meteorology
Over the past 50 years, developments in satellites, radar and numerous computer models have changed all of that.

Fred Gadomski is a senior lecturer in Penn State's Department of Meteorology, who first came to Penn State as a graduate student in 1978.

"There has been a communications revolution and a computation revolution and the amount of weather information available these days is extraordinary," Gadomski said. "If you compare the amount of weather information that a meteorologist has access to today in an 8-hour shift of weather, it is as much as a meteorologist 50 years ago would have had in an entire 40-year career."

More on Advancements in Satellites

More on Advancements in Radar

More on Advancements in Computer Models

Value Meteorologists Add to a Weather Forecast in the Age of Computers
Even with advanced supercomputers running complex computer models, the forecasts produced by them are not always correct. Meteorologists recognize the limitations of computer models' accuracy.

Meteorologists can add value to forecasts by distinguishing weather patterns and through experience. Knowing the biases of particular models also help meteorologists improve on the forecasts produced by computer models.

Understanding the dynamics and physics behind the weather is very important in adding value to weather forecasts. AccuWeather Founder, Dr. Joel Myers, who started AccuWeather in 1962, stressed the importance of these principles.

"We didn't have radars to print out in those days," Myers said, referencing the early days of AccuWeather. "The models that everyone talks about today were very rudimentary. A lot of weather forecasting depended on experience, pattern recognition, intuition based on good science, so it was an art as much as or more than a science based on a lot of experience."

Communication and Distribution of Weather Forecasts
Beyond producing an accurate forecast, the communication of the forecast must be clear and understandable to whoever is consuming it. In the age of vast computer technology and computer models, forecasters can add value by making a forecast meaningful to consumers.

The only way to get a weather forecast back in the 1950s through the 1980s was through newspapers, radio or TV. Today, those means of getting a forecast are still available, but computers, smart phones, tablets and social media have helped the quick flow of weather information as well. For instance, meteorologists can send out important information through social media during severe weather outbreaks and major snowstorms.

Social media also provides a more interactive experience both for meteorologists and consumers. Followers can send in weather reports and pictures that can aid in the vast amount of information available to meteorologists.

"Most of the forecasts you hear on the radio, newspaper, TV in the 70s when we started with radio and TV and newspapers were jargon," Myers said. "You know 'fair and warmer tomorrow high in the 60s.' Or '30 percent chance of scattered afternoon or evening thunderstorms,' day after day in the summer... There was always more information you could provide. And we revolutionized and led the whole change in describing the weather through weather forecasts."

"So, we were innovative in many ways, and we continue to be innovative," Myers added.