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Forecasting in the 1970s -- no model huggers then

  • 14-01-2020 1:34am
    Registered Users Posts: 13,929 ✭✭✭✭

    I thought some might be interested in an old man's recollections of how weather forecasting was done back in the 1970s, before the internet and most of today's vast array of weather modelling.

    This would be the North American view, perhaps some details were different in Europe.

    I got into forecasting through a back door, after walking out the front door in university. My initial objective was to graduate from a science degree program and seek out a career in either astronomy or meteorology. These had been strong interests of mine since high school days. My parents had supplied me with the instruments required for a home weather station, which I kept from about 1964 to 1968 in a small town west of Toronto (Georgetown), and handed off to some friends with younger siblings who then kept it going to 1972. But I was equally interested in astronomy and made a couple of trips to open house sessions at observatories in the region.

    At some point during my second year at university, I decided that I was more interested in climatology than either of the two sciences. Historical weather records fascinated me even half a century ago and I had become a frequent visitor to the weather bureau's library (it was on the campus of the university at that point in time, later on the headquarters moved out into a much larger building in suburban Toronto). They had monthly publications of all Canadian weather data going back as far as 1840 for Toronto and various other 19th century years for other locations.

    So I graduated from that climatology program (in 1971) before there was any whisper of "climate science" or much concern about global warming. We actually went through an interval in the 1970s where prominent atmospheric scientists were debating the possibility of a severe cooling trend. That was generally abandoned after the strong El Nino warmings of 1982-83.

    After doing some travelling and teaching for a few years, I started looking into career possibilities in the general field of climatology. Back in those days, your two options might be to work in the small but growing climate division of the national agency, or to take on a university teaching job. Climatologists were graduating at the rate of about three or four a year from that and one or two other colleges. It was not considered a science but a sort of book-keeping position to assist the science of meteorology, tell them what the climate statistics looked like and records etc, otherwise no input into anything that forecasters were doing. And I never really thought much about forecasting until I got hired on by a private forecasting company in Toronto to be a "met tech" to support their two-person forecasting office.

    They had contracts to supply air quality forecasts for various large industries in Canada with pollution problems. In the early 1970s, air quality in Canada was at its worst point in history. Yellow smog was a frequent occurrence in the Toronto region, and air quality alerts were frequent. But we were working for even worse offenders in smaller places scattered across Canada, where the wrong blend of weather and operations could create very severe health risks. Governments had begun to legislate these operations much more strictly, and they needed expert advice on when to shut down to avoid getting into legal trouble. We understood going in that they were already scrambling to install better technology to clean up their mess, and that our work was a bit of a temporary fix.

    So in getting involved in that work, I came to learn a lot about atmospheric stability and weather forecasting operationally. At that time, you did not have access to very much numerical weather prediction. There were two North American models that produced 12, 24, 36 and 48 hour panels of just 500mb and surface maps, then a 72 hour "prog map" would follow. The schedule for these was about what we are used to seeing nowadays although the 72h map (which was regarded as a shot in the dark) came out quite a bit after those main guidance products.

    When I say "came out" I am referring to a technology you may never have heard about, fax transmission. Not a phone-based fax, but a separate communications network with a big, chemically rather stinky, machine called an "Alden FAX" which slowly generated your charts on paper that was still a bit moist from the chemicals (the smell was pungent like ammonia). Those had to be hung up on a sort of clothesline in a back room (to keep the smell away from the non-meteorological staff) until they had dried out, then were hung up on walls in places where the forecaster might expect to find them.

    Of equal consideration as guidance, we drew up maps on a regular basis and even made our own "prog charts" using the models for some guidance and also a certain amount of subjective estimation. Maps were drawn up from weather data coming in regularly on teletype. The delay factor was minimal, probably less than the 15-20 minutes you have to wait to see hourly observations on the websites. "Special" obs would come in at random intervals as they were observed, but otherwise, you would get the local regional "runs" of data first then clusters from further afield until you had basically all the current obs for North America hanging on clipboards around the forecast office (after being used for plotting maps). I gained a reputation as a good map analyst and the senior forecaster at the company started asking me informally questions about forecasts. So did the staff (mostly weekend issues) and I then began to take on graveyard or weekend shifts that the forecasters didn't want, to continue their work programs. This would have displeased the boffins over at the government agency but then almost anything would.

    During that time I also worked up some computer models to predict lake effect snowfall in an effort to give the company some tools to use in seeking out contracts. It so happened that the years I was working there had heavy lake effect snowfall. A computer back in those days was a fairly large unit although not quite as monstrous as the ones I encountered a few years earlier in my college days, those filled entire rooms and were fed by punch-cards. This newer variety of computer was like what you may have seen at NASA during the Apollo missions. We designed some programs to print out snowfall forecasts based on various parameters such as wind direction, temperature at start and finish of lake crossing, dew point, stability parameters, etc. And it seemed to work fairly well. The company showed this off to some visitors from the government agency and they basically stole it from the company around the time I was leaving to go somewhere else. (Somebody took notes on how it was done and passed it off as his own work over at the headquarters). Plus ca change ...

    Another detail I could reveal is how we got radar information back then. We did have weather satellite imagery, it was pretty fuzzy and once again came in over the good old Alden FAX. But radar information was only available in digital form. Basically you had a read-out of distance from site, degrees of vector to return, and an estimate of height of the cell producing the return. And that was all you had. Our severe weather forecasting had to be based more on synoptic meteorology and clues from satellites, the main use of the radar was to get a fix on where the more obvious cells were located, and rates of movement, but all of today's technology was in the developmental stage. Maybe some agencies had a form of it available, but we didn't.

    So how was the forecasting? Actually, I think it was as good as or better than today for the first 24 and possibly even 48 hours. Forecasters had more hands-on experience with the weather and you couldn't model hug because the models could go tits up within 36 hours. I can remember one storm in April of 1979 that went off at about a 45 degree angle to where it was supposed to be going. But the models were fairly reliable for most weather patterns within the first two days. The third day was regarded as a bit of a crap shoot and a 96h experimental product got a very brief once-over about like you might assess the current 10 to 16 day portion of the GFS.

    With that better feel for actual weather, there tended to be a fairly high success rate in nailing down details. I remember one validation study for a forest fire support program where we were over 90% within 2 deg on temperatures even for the second day, and we got very positive feedback about our wind and stability profile forecasts. So it wasn't hit or miss as you sometimes hear about forecasting. What was different was that nobody attempted to go much past three or four days and "next week" was regarded as wait and see.

    Long range forecasting existed but was not practised very widely or by most larger companies or government agencies. I knew nothing about it in the 1970s and what I did learn came from reading Hubert Lamb's ground-breaking three volume opus published around 1977-78. People knew the Farmers' Almanac existed but studies had already been published in weather magazines to show that its method was an analogue from a past winter and the results validated were not significantly better than random, so in the profession that was ignored while in the general public, you would occasionally hear people saying something about the predictions. Anyway, for some outfit that liked to point to sensational winter scenarios, the mid-1970s turned out to be glory years for them.

    I was arriving at the forecast office on the morning of the famous January 26 1978 superstorm or Great Lakes Blizzard. We knew a big storm was coming, the models had shown a low deepening to 960 mbs over Lake Ontario and so of course I was excited to show up for work that morning. About the same time as I drove into the parking lot, an air conditioning unit landed in the next parking space and I could hardly walk from the car to the front door of the office with the wind howling. I noticed it was southwest but cold, which told me the low must have tracked further west. As soon as I got in and drew up a map, I could see it was a 955 mb low over Lake Huron. The duty forecaster showed up soon after that and looked at my map, and I saw quite an expression on his face. "Are you sure about that 955 reading at Sarnia?" was the first question. We saw some obs that nobody had seen in meteorological history, at least in our hemisphere, screaming south winds with lake effect snow squalls and rapidly falling temperatures (London, ON around 9 a.m.). Now that was wrap-around. We got that blast shortly afterwards and the temperature was falling visibly for several hours. Anyway, we were able to warn one of our clients in northern Ontario that a bad storm was coming in and they should expect to be snowed in at their offices. In Toronto there wasn't a lot of snow from that, maybe four or five inches, but the storm did tremendous damage to the hydro main lines in southwestern Ontario, blowing down some of the pylons near Lake Erie.

    That's part one, I will post part two and tell you a bit about my brief forecasting experiences at Accu-weather and then how I got into research and long-range forecasting after that. Part three you already know about. (MTC 2009-20 plus a bit of this and that).


  • Registered Users Posts: 13,929 ✭✭✭✭M.T. Cranium

    The private company where I was working developed some media contracts and we were asked to supply a forecast by a Toronto radio station during a one-day work stoppage at the government agency. Naturally it was yours truly who supplied that, a fact that was duly noted at the weather agency where I think I already had a bit of a bad reputation ("I think he's forecasting over there, and no degree, blah blah, world may end"). So now they had an issue where they could make trouble for the company (they viewed this as strike-breaking, myself being a rip-roaring libertarian even in those days took a carefree attitude to their concerns, something I now reserve mostly for Net-weather moderators and Greta Thunberg). But I think they were happy enough to put all the blame on me and keep their otherwise cordial relations with the company (which was doing stuff they had no expertise in anyway, air quality forecasting).

    After a while, I began to look for new opportunities and hit on Accu-weather as a place to seek them out. I knew about them as providers of forecasts for Buffalo and Rochester TV stations that I used to watch for weather on my days off (the level of presentation was miles ahead of the rather stodgy draw backwards on a fixed map style in vogue in Toronto). Well why didn't you look on the internet MT? Well my dear friend, there was no internet. This was like 1978-79. There wasn't even an Ayatollah Khomeini until later that year. So it was a world with the Shah of Iran and no internet, and even consensual sex. You wouldn't understand such a hellhole had you not experienced it for yourself. And there was the ice age to look forward to. Also 1984 was something that might happen in the future. Now if Orwell had thought to call his novel 2012, I think he might have been regarded as some kind of psychic. But that would have required him to write it in 2021. (MT knows something about a field not atmospheric? Startling.)

    So I drove down to central PA to State College which is basically a huge college residence on an epic scale. Accu-weather turned out to be a sort of industrial strength version of where I had been working, with sixty forecasters and about a dozen met techs, plus support staff, all crammed into a rather small building that had at one time been a church. They were interested in having me join up to supply inside information about possible business contracts they could seek in Canada based on their extensive reference base (mostly very favourable reviews) from similar concerns in America. You might think of them as being a media forecasting outfit, but a lot of their work was actually very nuts and bolts stuff to support highways snow clearance, ski resort maintenance, public utilities who relied on accurate rainfall forecasts, etc. Most of it was almost now-casting, certainly the first 24 hours made or broke their business model. We had a chat about qualifications and I was quite up front about not being a "real" meteorologist but in any case my input was to be more along the lines of business development than forecasting.

    So I started out as a met tech there drawing up maps and participating in forecast discussions. One of their favourite approaches would be to ask every forecaster in the room to draw up a snowfall amounts map then all of them would be pinned up en masse and discussed. Sometimes they would do that with a heavy rainfall event also. I was there in a rather unusual winter, 1979-80, there was very little snow in the usual places and a lot further south. Around leap year day of 1980 there was a massive storm off the Virginia coast and Virginia Beach got buried under two feet. That one pushed back into PA and dropped a foot there as well. So I had a map up showing some rather massive amounts that got a skeptical response but then after the fact, where is that guy? sorts of comments. The same thing happened with a freak rainstorm that dropped 5 or 6 inches in some places in April of 1980.

    However, my forecasting "exploits" were relatively minor and confined to a few discussions where I had no actual stake in the outcome, since I wasn't on any forecasting duty. Nor was I trying to impress some senior forecaster to get ahead in the organization, as the entire operation was meant to be a one-year stay that would prove mutually beneficial.

    There was a life-changing incident there which seemed very ordinary at the time. One day, and it was before the big Leap Year day storm, a senior figure in their forecast office just happened to say to a group of people on a quiet break in the action, "seems to me that every full moon, maybe every new moon as well, we get a big storm on the east coast." Until that day, I had never thought about that connection. What that led to, for me, was independent research that I started to do even while working in PA (a lot of spare time as I came down there by myself and rented a place) with another young met tech who had similar interests (who has since gone on to a career in climatology, wisely avoiding any public utterances indicating any knowledge of The Shunned One). You'd be wise to follow his lead if you're planning any public demonstrations of your love of climate.

    We made a few long-range monthly forecasts too, after a chat about how one might do that (pattern recognition mainly) and the very first one was wildly accurate (showing an enormous heat dome over the central states for April of 1980). That got the company a bit interested in what we were doing in our spare time, but it never went much further than that, except that I think it got them slowly onto the track of developing long-range outlooks, something they had not been doing before 1980.

    When my time there came to its appointed end, I was back home in Canada and I decided I would go into the research of these new ideas that had come into my mind, calling my company "Future Weather Inc" and going as far as to publish annual forecasts like the Almanac, which were mailed out to subscribers. At one point I had as many as three hundred subscriptions and a 90% renewal rate. For whatever reason, my primitive version of the model that I now use for long range forecasts was working quite well even in the 1980s and I called such things as the intense heat waves of 1987 and 1988, and wet seasons that came along, to the satisfaction of clients who were mainly either farmers or utility companies. The people at Environment Canada hated my guts, especially after a Canadian magazine did a profile and sought some forecasts, unwisely the government agency supplied some from basic climatology and ended up getting beaten rather badly. And word had arrived at the mother ship that I had run as an independent candidate in a federal byelection (as a libertarian) and said less than glowing things about Dear Leader Pierre Trudeau. In those days, one had to be a card carrying member of the Liberal Party of Canada to get any sort of job in the public service, or to advance within the public service if one had somehow gotten in there earlier as a non-political or (heavens forbid) member of some other party.

    Friends trapped within the organization (where else would you get work as a climate statistics analyst?) told me that the word around the office was that I was both Satan and Anti-christ, and only over their dead bodies would I ever get any contractual work with them. Furthermore, anyone who disputed that could expect the same treatment. So a discussion that somebody arranged for my research and publications turned into an acting out session for them, with some people not in the loop interacting with me as a human being, and some in the loop dumping their vitriol and hatred all over me (not a new experience, I have often been a hated person in various settings, for whatever reason, and this puzzles some who know me as a rather mild-mannered and inoffensive person with good manners and a desire to get along with people -- if they can hate me, I have to wonder what they would make of some of the a-holes that I know from golfing or other pursuits).

    Well that's a little bit of a glimpse into where I was many years ago. None of it matters much today. Of course I would like to see some of these situations reversed but what would be gained now? Most of my antagonists have probably retired since the majority of them were 5-10 years older than me (and I'm seventy). Whoever works there now (it is a vast enterprise called Environment and Climate Change Canada) might have heard enough to know that I am some very bad person (say that like Babu on Seinfeld, very very bad person). Of course in the modern context, where (wouldn't you know it?) I have not come into full alignment with the IPCC consensus (and who has, but that's a question for a different thread) a lot of these dynamics are repeating themselves, except that now I have plenty of company on the trains to the gulag.

    My research began to broaden out (for quite a while I thought it was all about a lunar-atmospheric coupling, then I began to see that the solar system magnetic field was a variable that eventually I would assign 70% of the variance there and less than the other 30% to the Moon) and in the 1990s I stopped publishing my forecasts, having full time work meant I didn't really get much economic value from all the time spent and with the internet looming (we knew something was coming) I figured I could restart my business model on that platform. That has never quite happened mostly because I've always been pretty busy doing other things and to be honest, I am not much of a businessman, if I were, I'd be Joe Bastardi (who I met in 1979-80, he was a young punk back then, always with a contrarian opinion in those group discussions, but on a fast track for promotion, it seemed). Actually I'm happier to serve in the way that I do now, and wouldn't change a thing, except on some forums (not this one) perhaps to have a bit more respect shown, as I've always tried to show (you can see why it would not come easily to me to respect some of the weather professionals but I don't think they are all a bad lot, just my bad luck to meet up with some real bastards). I should mention to avoid any misunderstandings that I found the senior staff at Accu-weather to be very courteous and friendly people, naturally more results-oriented than public sector agencies tend to be, since the clients are not a captive audience and can take their business elsewhere). If you worked hard and put in a solid day's effort, they noticed and responded. I think in the public sector atmosphere in Canada in the 1970s and 1980s (and this is my only real experience of it) that attitude was replaced with a more cynical "we're here until we retire, if they're lucky, we might do something today" approach. It was probably a blessing in disguise that I never got very far into that stream. I know of one person who hated it so much that he left, never recovered and committed suicide in a distant location. Large organizations can sometimes run roughshod over the basic humanity of the individual. And meteorology seems to attract its fair share of control freaks. I'm probably more OCD than type A if one is looking for flaws (and one usually is).

    One other note: weathermen are possibly the worst dressed people in professional life. Just something I noticed. Maybe it's because the guidance is unreliable.

  • Registered Users Posts: 462 ✭✭oriel36

    What an interesting read with so many milestones with great things to celebrate and a few things to regret.

    I am a Christian so people with gift/talents for a particular endeavour naturally do things because they simply can and one of the shining principles of Christian life -

    "And now, brother, listen to the conclusion. Above all the graces and all the gifts of the Holy Spirit which Christ grants to his friends, is the grace of overcoming oneself, and accepting willingly, out of love for Christ, all suffering, injury, discomfort and contempt; for in all other gifts of God we cannot glory, seeing they proceed not from ourselves but from God, according to the words of the Apostle, "What have you that you have not received from God? and if you have received it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?"Francis of Assisi

    If you retain the talent then shrug about those in the past who didn't but by force of being disciplinarians or authoritarians they may have made you a more productive person. Doing things because you can obviates the need to please people or look to the future or the past for sanction so self-discipline becomes the prime mover for any insights or projections you have.

    "Consider this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each must do as already determined, without sadness or compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver" Paul

    I think some people get it but others do not.

    I am sure academics feel slighted and there is a burdensome hierarchy to contend with when you are paid to do such things and that is fine but ultimately it is the connection between the individual and their terrestrial and celestial surroundings where the real rewards are found.

    Thanks for the personal history as it explains much.