Meteorology is a branch of the atmospheric sciences which includes atmospheric chemistry and atmospheric physics, with a major focus on weather forecasting. The study of meteorology dates back millennia, though significant progress in meteorology did not occur until the 18th century. The 19th century saw modest progress in the field after weather observation networks were formed across broad regions. Prior attempts at prediction of weather depended on historical data. It was not until after the elucidation of the laws of physics and, more particularly, the development of the computer, allowing for the automated solution of a great many equations that model the weather, in the latter half of the 20th century that significant breakthroughs in weather forecasting were achieved.

Meteorological phenomena are observable weather events that are explained by the science of meteorology. Meteorological phenomena are described and quantified by the variables of Earth's atmosphere: temperature, air pressure, water vapour, mass flow, and the variations and interactions of those variables, and how they change over time. Different spatial scales are used to describe and predict weather on local, regional, and global levels.

Meteorology, climatology, atmospheric physics, and atmospheric chemistry are sub-disciplines of the atmospheric sciences. Meteorology and hydrology compose the interdisciplinary field of hydrometeorology. The interactions between Earth's atmosphere and its oceans are part of a coupled ocean-atmosphere system. Meteorology has application in many diverse fields such as the military, energy production, transport, agriculture, and construction.

The word meteorology is from the Ancient Greek μετέωρος metéōros (meteor) and -λογία -logia (-(o)logy), meaning "the study of things high in the air".


The ability to predict rains and floods based on annual cycles was evidently used by humans at least from the time of agricultural settlement if not earlier. Early approaches to predicting weather were based on astrology and were practiced by priests. Cuneiform inscriptions on Babylonian tablets included associations between thunder and rain. The Chaldeans differentiated the 22° and 46° halos.[1]

Ancient Indian Upanishads contain mentions of clouds and seasons.[2] The Samaveda mentions sacrifices to be performed when certain phenomena were noticed.[1] Varāhamihira's classical work Brihatsamhita, written about 500 AD,[2] provides evidence of weather observation.

In 350 BC, Aristotle wrote Meteorology.[3] Aristotle is considered the founder of meteorology.[4] One of the most impressive achievements described in the Meteorology is the description of what is now known as the hydrologic cycle.[5]

The book De Mundo (composed before 250 BC or between 350 and 200 BC) noted[6]

If the flashing body is set on fire and rushes violently to the Earth it is called a thunderbolt; if it is only half of fire, but violent also and massive, it is called a meteor; if it is entirely free from fire, it is called a smoking bolt. They are all called 'swooping bolts' because they swoop down upon the Earth. Lightning is sometimes smoky, and is then called 'smoldering lightning"; sometimes it darts quickly along, and is then said to be vivid. At other times, it travels in crooked lines, and is called forked lightning. When it swoops down upon some object it is called 'swooping lightning'.

The Greek scientist Theophrastus compiled a book on weather forecasting, called the Book of Signs. The work of Theophrastus remained a dominant influence in the study of weather and in weather forecasting for nearly 2,000 years.[7] In 25 AD, Pomponius Mela, a geographer for the Roman Empire, formalized the climatic zone system.[8] According to Toufic Fahd, around the 9th century, Al-Dinawari wrote the Kitab al-Nabat (Book of Plants), in which he deals with the application of meteorology to agriculture during the Muslim Agricultural Revolution. He describes the meteorological character of the sky, the planets and constellations, the sun and moon, the lunar phases indicating seasons and rain, the anwa (heavenly bodies of rain), and atmospheric phenomena such as winds, thunder, lightning, snow, floods, valleys, rivers, lakes.[9][10][verification needed]

Early attempts at predicting weather were often related to prophesy and divining and sometimes based on astrological ideas. Admiral FitzRoy tried to separate scientific approaches from prophetic ones.[11]

Research of visual atmospheric phenomena

Twilight at Baker Beach

Ptolemy wrote on the atmospheric refraction of light in the context of astronomical observations.[12] In 1021, Alhazen showed that atmospheric refraction is also responsible for twilight; he estimated that twilight begins when the sun is 19 degrees below the horizon, and also used a geometric determination based on this to estimate the maximum possible height of the Earth's atmosphere as 52,000 passim (about 49 miles, or 79 km).[13]

St. Albert the Great was the first to propose that each drop of falling rain had the form of a small sphere, and that this form meant that the rainbow was produced by light interacting with each raindrop.[14] Roger Bacon was the first to calculate the angular size of the rainbow. He stated that a rainbow summit can not appear higher than 42 degrees above the horizon.[15] In the late 13th century and early 14th century, Kamāl al-Dīn al-Fārisī and Theodoric of Freiberg were the first to give the correct explanations for the primary rainbow phenomenon. Theoderic went further and also explained the secondary rainbow.[16] In 1716, Edmund Halley suggested that aurorae are caused by "magnetic effluvia" moving along the Earth's magnetic field lines.

Instruments and classification scales

A hemispherical cup anemometer

In 1441, King Sejong's son, Prince Munjong of Korea, invented the first standardized rain gauge.[17] These were sent throughout the Joseon Dynasty of Korea as an official tool to assess land taxes based upon a farmer's potential harvest. In 1450, Leone Battista Alberti developed a swinging-plate anemometer, and was known as the first anemometer.[18] In 1607, Galileo Galilei constructed a thermoscope. In 1611, Johannes Kepler wrote the first scientific treatise on snow crystals: "Strena Seu de Nive Sexangula (A New Year's Gift of Hexagonal Snow)".[19] In 1643, Evangelista Torricelli invented the mercury barometer.[18] In 1662, Sir Christopher Wren invented the mechanical, self-emptying, tipping bucket rain gauge. In 1714, Gabriel Fahrenheit created a reliable scale for measuring temperature with a mercury-type thermometer.[20] In 1742, Anders Celsius, a Swedish astronomer, proposed the "centigrade" temperature scale, the predecessor of the current Celsius scale.[21] In 1783, the first hair hygrometer was demonstrated by Horace-Bénédict de Saussure. In 1802–1803, Luke Howard wrote On the Modification of Clouds, in which he assigns cloud types Latin names.[22] In 1806, Francis Beaufort introduced his system for classifying wind speeds.[23] Near the end of the 19th century the first cloud atlases were published, including the International Cloud Atlas, which has remained in print ever since. The April 1960 launch of the first successful weather satellite, TIROS-1, marked the beginning of the age where weather information became available globally.

Atmospheric composition research

In 1648, Blaise Pascal rediscovered that atmospheric pressure decreases with height, and deduced that there is a vacuum above the atmosphere.[24] In 1738, Daniel Bernoulli published Hydrodynamics, initiating the Kinetic theory of gases and established the basic laws for the theory of gases.[25] In 1761, Joseph Black discovered that ice absorbs heat without changing its temperature when melting. In 1772, Black's student Daniel Rutherford discovered nitrogen, which he called phlogisticated air, and together they developed the phlogiston theory.[26] In 1777, Antoine Lavoisier discovered oxygen and developed an explanation for combustion.[27] In 1783, in Lavoisier's essay "Reflexions sur le phlogistique",[28] he deprecates the phlogiston theory and proposes a caloric theory.[29][30] In 1804, Sir John Leslie observed that a matte black surface radiates heat more effectively than a polished surface, suggesting the importance of black body radiation. In 1808, John Dalton defended caloric theory in A New System of Chemistry and described how it combines with matter, especially gases; he proposed that the heat capacity of gases varies inversely with atomic weight. In 1824, Sadi Carnot analyzed the efficiency of steam engines using caloric theory; he developed the notion of a reversible process and, in postulating that no such thing exists in nature, laid the foundation for the second law of thermodynamics.

Research into cyclones and air flow

General circulation of the Earth's atmosphere: The westerlies and trade winds are part of the Earth's atmospheric circulation.

In 1494, Christopher Columbus experienced a tropical cyclone, which led to the first written European account of a hurricane.[31] In 1686, Edmund Halley presented a systematic study of the trade winds and monsoons and identified solar heating as the cause of atmospheric motions.[32] In 1735, an ideal explanation of global circulation through study of the trade winds was written by George Hadley.[33] In 1743, when Benjamin Franklin was prevented from seeing a lunar eclipse by a hurricane, he decided that cyclones move in a contrary manner to the winds at their periphery.[34] Understanding the kinematics of how exactly the rotation of the Earth affects airflow was partial at first. Gaspard-Gustave Coriolis published a paper in 1835 on the energy yield of machines with rotating parts, such as waterwheels.[35] In 1856, William Ferrel proposed the existence of a circulation cell in the mid-latitudes, and the air within deflected by the Coriolis force resulting in the prevailing westerly winds.[36] Late in the 19th century, the motion of air masses along isobars was understood to be the result of the large-scale interaction of the pressure gradient force and the deflecting force. By 1912, this deflecting force was named the Coriolis effect.[37] Just after World War I, a group of meteorologists in Norway led by Vilhelm Bjerknes developed the Norwegian cyclone model that explains the generation, intensification and ultimate decay (the life cycle) of mid-latitude cyclones, and introduced the idea of fronts, that is, sharply defined boundaries between air masses.[38] The group included Carl-Gustaf Rossby (who was the first to explain the large scale atmospheric flow in terms of fluid dynamics), Tor Bergeron (who first determined how rain forms) and Jacob Bjerknes.

Observation networks and weather forecasting

Cloud classification by altitude of occurrence
This "Hyetographic or Rain Map of the World " was first published 1848 by Alexander Keith Johnston.
This "Hyetographic or Rain Map of Europe" was also published in 1848 as part of "The Physical Atlas".

In the late 16th century and first half of the 17th century a range of meteorological instruments was invented – the thermometer, barometer, hydrometer, as well as wind and rain gauges. In the 1650s natural philosophers started using these instruments to systematically record weather observations. Scientific academies established weather diaries and organised observational networks.[39] In 1654, Ferdinando II de Medici established the first weather observing network, that consisted of meteorological stations in Florence, Cutigliano, Vallombrosa, Bologna, Parma, Milan, Innsbruck, Osnabrück, Paris and Warsaw. The collected data were sent to Florence at regular time intervals.[40] In the 1660s Robert Hooke of the Royal Society of London sponsored networks of weather observers. Hippocrates' treatise Airs, Waters, and Places had linked weather to disease. Thus early meteorologists attempted to correlate weather patterns with epidemic outbreaks, and the climate with public health.[39]

During the Age of Enlightenment meteorology tried to rationalise traditional weather lore, including astrological meteorology. But there were also attempts to establish a theoretical understanding of weather phenomena. Edmond Halley and George Hadley tried to explain trade winds. They reasoned that the rising mass of heated equator air is replaced by an inflow of cooler air from high latitudes. A flow of warm air at high altitude from equator to poles in turn established an early picture of circulation. Frustration with the lack of discipline among weather observers, and the poor quality of the instruments, led the early modern nation states to organise large observation networks. Thus by the end of the 18th century meteorologists had access to large quantities of reliable weather date.[39] In 1832, an electromagnetic telegraph was created by Baron Schilling.[41] The arrival of the electrical telegraph in 1837 afforded, for the first time, a practical method for quickly gathering surface weather observations from a wide area.[42]

This data could be used to produce maps of the state of the atmosphere for a region near the Earth's surface and to study how these states evolved through time. To make frequent weather forecasts based on these data required a reliable network of observations, but it was not until 1849 that the Smithsonian Institution began to establish an observation network across the United States under the leadership of Joseph Henry.[43] Similar observation networks were established in Europe at this time. The Reverend William Clement Ley was key in understanding of cirrus clouds and early understandings of Jet Streams.[44] Charles Kenneth Mackinnon Douglas, known as 'CKM' Douglas read Ley's papers after his death and carried on the early study of weather systems.[45] Nineteenth century researchers in meteorology were drawn from military or medical backgrounds, rather than trained as dedicated scientists.[46] In 1854, the United Kingdom government appointed Robert FitzRoy to the new office of Meteorological Statist to the Board of Trade with the task of gathering weather observations at sea. FitzRoy's office became the United Kingdom Meteorological Office in 1854, the second oldest national meteorological service in the world (the Central Institution for Meteorology and Geodynamics (ZAMG) in Austria was founded in 1851 and is the oldest weather service in the world). The first daily weather forecasts made by FitzRoy's Office were published in The Times newspaper in 1860. The following year a system was introduced of hoisting storm warning cones at principal ports when a gale was expected.

Over the next 50 years many countries established national meteorological services. The India Meteorological Department (1875) was established to follow tropical cyclone and monsoon.[47] The Finnish Meteorological Central Office (1881) was formed from part of Magnetic Observatory of Helsinki University.[48] Japan's Tokyo Meteorological Observatory, the forerunner of the Japan Meteorological Agency, began constructing surface weather maps in 1883.[49] The United States Weather Bureau (1890) was established under the United States Department of Agriculture. The Australian Bureau of Meteorology (1906) was established by a Meteorology Act to unify existing state meteorological services.[50][51]

Numerical weather prediction

A meteorologist at the console of the IBM 7090 in the Joint Numerical Weather Prediction Unit. c. 1965

In 1904, Norwegian scientist Vilhelm Bjerknes first argued in his paper Weather Forecasting as a Problem in Mechanics and Physics that it should be possible to forecast weather from calculations based upon natural laws.[52][53]

It was not until later in the 20th century that advances in the understanding of atmospheric physics led to the foundation of modern numerical weather prediction. In 1922, Lewis Fry Richardson published "Weather Prediction By Numerical Process",[54] after finding notes and derivations he worked on as an ambulance driver in World War I. He described how small terms in the prognostic fluid dynamics equations that govern atmospheric flow could be neglected, and a numerical calculation scheme that could be devised to allow predictions. Richardson envisioned a large auditorium of thousands of people performing the calculations. However, the sheer number of calculations required was too large to complete without electronic computers, and the size of the grid and time steps used in the calculations led to unrealistic results. Though numerical analysis later found that this was due to numerical instability.

Starting in the 1950s, numerical forecasts with computers became feasible.[55] The first weather forecasts derived this way used barotropic (single-vertical-level) models, and could successfully predict the large-scale movement of midlatitude Rossby waves, that is, the pattern of atmospheric lows and highs.[56] In 1959, the UK Meteorological Office received its first computer, a Ferranti Mercury.[57]

In the 1960s, the chaotic nature of the atmosphere was first observed and mathematically described by Edward Lorenz, founding the field of chaos theory.[58] These advances have led to the current use of ensemble forecasting in most major forecasting centers, to take into account uncertainty arising from the chaotic nature of the atmosphere.[59] Mathematical models used to predict the long term weather of the Earth (climate models), have been developed that have a resolution today that are as coarse as the older weather prediction models. These climate models are used to investigate long-term climate shifts, such as what effects might be caused by human emission of greenhouse gases.

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