The Weather Machine

February 27, 2024

Book Notes

The Weather Machine Book Cover

When I read a book I have the habit of highlighting certain passages I find interesting or useful. After I finish the book I’ll type up those passages and put them into a note on my phone. I’ll keep them to comb through every so often so that I remember what that certain book was about. That’s what these are. So if I ever end up lending you a book, these are the sections that I’ve highlighted in that book. Enjoy!

When a telegraph operator arrived each morning at the office, he would check in with his counterparts in other cities, to see what the weather was there and prepare for any outages. “If I learned from Cincinnati that the wires to St. Louis were interrupted by rain, I was tolerably sure a ‘northeast’ storm was approaching.”

As soon as information could be exchanged across distances, disparate pieces of sky could be fit together like a puzzle. “The weather” no longer merely described the conditions at a specific place on earth but weather patterns that stretched thousand of miles.

When the Civil War severed the telegraph network between North and South, the flow of weather observations stopped and the map was left half blank.

The diplomatic challenge was obvious from the start. If each noation was going to build its own weather observing system, and if those systems were going to be joined together into a system of systems, then they needed standards, protocols and rules.

Bjerknes and his crew could identify “lines of convergence” as they called them, and the rainfall that normall accompanied them. Representing them, their maps swirled with big arcs, showing no regard for traditional political boundaries, land or sea. Adopting the martial language of the era, they referred to these as “fronts”–an idea they extended to describe “polar fronts,” which could be thought of as the battle line between polar and tropical air masses.

There are weather stations most everywhere on earth, but not all weather stations are created equal. In recent decades, the most important sites have been part of what’s been known as the regional Basic Synoptic Network, managed by the World Meteorological Organization, the United Nations agency responsible (among other duties) for coordinating weather observations.

LaGuardia is one of 135 airports round the United States with a human observer – a person watching the weather and watching the machines that watch the weather.

The Regional Basic Synoptic Network is one component of what’s grandly known as the Global Observing System, which is itself part of what’s even more grandly known as the World Weather Watch.

Arranged in each realm are pictogram of the observing system’s parts, labeled all in caps: OCEAN DATA BUOYs, which float offshore and are notoriously expensive to maintain; AIRCRAFT, which depend on the participation of the airlines; UPPER-AIR STATIONs, where government weather services launch balloons twice a day; and AUTOMATIC STATIONs, which may be as simple as a sensor mounted to a traffic light.

It is through simple points that we understand the whole. each place has a story to tell, but only when they are all linked together do they tell the whole story: a picture fo the atmosphere of the earth at that moment–the necessary starting point for drawing a picture of the atmosphere at the next moment.

The essence of a weather station is to stand firmly in place to measure the atmosphere rushing by.

There are two categories of weather satellites flying today: geostationary orbiters and polar orbiters. The geostationary, or GEOs, orbit in the same direction as the earth’s rotation, making them appear motionless in the sky. They provide constantly updated information about a single area of the atmosphere. The polar, or low earth orbiters, known as LEOs, fly low and fast. They circle the planet from north to south and south to north, overflying a different geography with each orbit and cutting a pattern around the globe like an orange peeled with a knife. The LEOs measure the atmosphere more precisely but cover the whole earth less often.

When an instrument was aimed at precisely the point on the horizon where Metop-B would appear, it rose like a speck of dust in a sunbeam. Taht moment is called “AOS”, a spacelight acronym meaning “acquisition of signal”. Each orbit around the earth takes 102 minutes, but the satellite is only visible to the ground station on Svalbard for anywhere from 12-15 minutes. On that day, the shortest pass would come during the Norwegian night. The main task of each pass is to download the gigabytes of observational data typically collected while the satellite is flying around the planet. Technically speaking, this is called a “full dump,” and it is kind of like trying to download a movie over your neighbor’s Wi-Fi while driving by their house. Each pass brings a mix of drama and routine.

Roberts wanted the architecture of the new lab to reflect ambition. He hired I.M. Pei for his first major comission and asked for a building that expressed “both the contemplative and exciting aspects of scientific activity.” It should be “monastic, ascetic, but hospitable.” It should have “soull.” For inspiration, Pei camped out on the site among the deer and rabbits, and he visited the Anasazi cliff dwellings in southwestern Colorado.

It helps that the weather models are not assembled in secret by a corporation but out in the open, collaboratively, among scientists and govvernment agencies form all over the world, albeit so slowly that their construction has mostly gone unnoticed.

Making things more interesting, there is plenty we don’t know about the present weather. There are places without observations; and places with observations that are wrong. The observing system may be vast, but it is imperfect.

@joekotlan on X