Generations of humans have used varying methods to predict the weather. In the past, farmers thought rain was coming if their cows were lying down in the pasture. Today, things are a little more sophisticated. Forecasts serve a multitude of purposes, from planning agriculture or aviation to your weekend barbecue, and their sophistication is increasing with the latest developments in technology.
The U.S. military first exploited radar for weather observation in 1943. In the 1960s, scientists at the National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) in Oklahoma started using Doppler radar (named for Austrian physicist J. Christian Doppler), which was implemented more broadly in the 1980s for the National Weather Service in the U.S.
The radar emits pulses of electromagnetic waves, which bounce off particles in the atmosphere and return to the radar dish. A computer processes the information to determine the direction and speed of precipitation. Dual-polarized radar transmit both horizontally and vertically polarized electromagnetic waves to give more accurate identification of the amount and type of precipitation — e.g., the difference between heavy rain and hail – and better hazardous weather warnings.
Weather satellites, which rely on sensors for weather observation and monitoring, were first used in the 1960s. Today, sophisticated instrumentation records visible and infrared images to provide better information about clouds and wind, while advanced cameras record lightning flashes. Satellites with these capabilities will provide more frequent, complex data for more accurate forecasts, which may increase warning time for tornadoes and severe storms, as well as improve hurricane tracking.
Such innovations have brought big data to the world of weather. Services such as the U.K.’s Met Office are turning to supercomputers to process global weather observations at a rate of more than 16,000 trillion calculations a second. Supercomputers rely on semiconductors to enable the use of a new dynamic core, the engine of numerical weather prediction models, for the development of more accurate, reliable forecasting models. As data and models become more sophisticated, weather forecasting can be put to an even broader range of uses, such as predicting the vulnerability of electric grids to storm conditions.
For up-to-the minute on-demand forecasts, you need look no farther than your pocket. Phone apps use weather radar to provide local and international forecasts, or pull data from the NOAA’s radar network and uses your phone’s pressure sensors to generate more local forecasts. Some apps even provide high definition radar imaging and allow you to layer on a lightning locator.
While we may never be able to control the weather, our ability to forecast with ever-greater accuracy will only grow with the power of the technology in the coming years.