Weather: Forecasting from the Beginning

Forecasting from the Beginning

Our brief exploration into forecasting pretty much follows the techniques and methods developed by early weather wizards. From the earliest of times, hunters, farmers, warriors, shepherds, and sailors learned the importance of being able to tell what the weather might be up to next. Ancient civilizations appealed to the gods of the sky. The Egyptians looked to Ra, the sun god. The Greeks sought out the all-powerful Zeus. Then there was Thor, the god of thunder and lightning in ancient Nordic times. Some societies, such as the Aztecs, used human sacrifice to satisfy the rain god, Tlaloc. Native American and Australian aborigines performed rain dances. Those who were able to predict the weather and seemed to influence its production were held in highest esteem. After all, they appeared to be very well connected.


The sound of an approaching tornado can alert you to the oncoming storm. Many people say that it sounds like a freight train. Also look for a dark, often greenish-colored sky.

One of the earliest scientific approaches to weather prediction occurred around 300 B.C.E., documented in Aristotle's work, "Meteorologica." The ancient Greeks invented the term meteorology, which means the study of atmospheric disturbances or meteors. Aristotle tried to explain the weather through the interaction of earth, fire, air, and water. His pupil Theophrastus really went to work and wrote the ultimate weather text The Book of Signs, which contained a collection of weather lore and forecast signs. Amazingly it served as the definitive weather book for 2,000 years! (What if they're still reading this 2,000 years from now?)

Weather Words

"There is a sound of abundance of rain."

—1 Kings

Theophrastus's weather lore included colors of the sky, rings and halos, and even sound. Hippocrates—also known as "the Father of Medicine"—was also very much involved with the weather. His work On Airs, Waters, and Places became a medical classic, linking good health with favorable weather conditions. The opening of his work begins with the advice that those who wish to investigate medicine must first begin with an understanding of seasons and weather.


Meteorology is the science of studying the atmosphere.

Weather forecasting advanced little from these ancient times to the Renaissance. Then beginning in the fifteenth century, Leonardo da Vinci designed an instrument for measuring humidity called a hygrometer. Later Galileo Galilei invented the thermometer and his student Evangelista Torricelli came up with the barometer for measuring air pressure. With these tools, people could monitor the atmosphere. Then Sir Isaac Newton derived the physics and mathematics that accurately described the atmosphere. Newton's work on motion remains The Book of Signs of modern meteorology. To this day, his principles form the foundation of all computer analyses and predictions.

Braving the Elements

Warning! Forecasters are not always held blameless for their predictions. In Taiwan, the head of the weather service was jailed for not warning of an approaching typhoon. His office predicted that the storm would miss the island. It didn't. In Israel, a weathercaster was sued by a viewer who claimed a surprise shower messed up her hair, gave her the flu, made her miss four days of work, and caused mental anguish. In the United States, the families of fishermen lost in a surprise storm off Boston sued the National Weather Service. Also, the state of Connecticut has been sued by the family of a girl who was killed by a falling tree during a severe storm in July 1989. The girl was attending a group outing at a state park when the storm struck.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Weather © 2002 by Mel Goldstein, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.