"Speaking of the Weather . . . "
Without the weather as a conversational fillip, nine-tenths of modern social life would be in dumb show. The Canadian Weather Man is the most talked about and least understood of all Dominion institutions. This is his story.
JAMES A. COWAN
IF YOU are one of the nine million and more Canadians who are accustomed to remark blithely that to-morrow is certain to be a fine day, restrain yourself.
You may be surprised to learn that if you make a statement of this type on your own responsibility, you are practically announcing that you have the power of performing, miracles.
You are declaring that you have accomplished something you could only hope to do with the aid of
230 able-bodied men,
approximately $163,000 worth of delicate apparatus, and an expenditure for cablegrams and telegrams equal to the salary of a good bricklayer for a union week. Even then you could only achieve accuracy if you were one of the twenty luckiest persons in the Dominion.
When you com-
mence chatting about the future prospects of the atmosphere, you are tinkering with one of the trickiest of all sciences and a subject of study which is as old as religion. If interested in its age. consult any reliable historian and he can
tell you that you are, in this present advanced era, laboring under delusions regarding the weather which were invented by the Babylonians. Most of the cute little verses, rhymes, proverbs and smart sayings which are supposed to contain clues to coming weather are based on the conclusions of some Babylonian fakir and all of them, according to the experts, have the same general value as a cancelled three-cent stamp.
Concerning the intricacies of the science of weather, or meteorology as it is called in the circles of the learned, a casual survey of the work of Canada’s official bureau, the Dominion Meteorological Service, is all the proof required.
Seeing that the work of this service is the most staple article of conversation known to man, and that individuals commence to show a keen interest in it almost as soon as they learn to talk, the fact that not one per cent, of the population knows exactly what it does or how it operates, constitutes a record among public-service institutions.
The Dominion Meteorological Service, then, is directed from a central bureau in Toronto, where Sir Frederic Stupart and an excellent staff of specialists make their headquarters. It controls seven hundred subsidiary stations, scattered all over the map and including observation posts in Newfoundland and Bermuda, both of which are strategic points of great importance when it comes to predicting Canada’s climate in thirty-six hour instalments. The most northerly post is Pond’s Inlet, two thousand miles from the central observatory, where an officer of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police makes regular observations. A station also is maintained at Aklavik, near Herschel Island, where the observer uses the wireless as his method of making reports.
Not only has the Dominion of Canada been painstakingly dotted with the means of observing the atmosphere and keeping tab on the temperature, but the entire northern hemisphere is carefully organized. Through their affiliations with similar bureaus in other countries, the Dominion’s meteorologists receive daily bulletins by cable covering nearly all parts of the upper half of the earth—from London, Washington, the Azores, Paris, Berlin, Gibraltar, Alaska, Mexico, Denmark, the Hawaiian Islands and ships at sea. The officials in the central bureau know off-hand, the weather of the moment in all
this vast stretch of territory. Because of this international organization, incidentally, the curious layman can be given a real thrill. It is possible to walk into the observatory, as the writer did, ask: “Well, how are things in your business in the Arctic to-day?” and
receive an immediate, an exact and a courteous reply.
“Rather good,” was the answer in this particular case. “Rather good, that is, for the Arctic. It was only eleven below at Spitzbergen shortly before noon There was a light breeze from the west. All in all, there is no cause for complaint from that district to-day.”
Daily information is only lacking from one populated section of this world’s northern surface—Russia. Some years ago Canadian meteorologists used to receive five or six cablegrams each day, dealing with the weather in the land of jaw-breaking consonants, but since the wellknown revolution, the Russians seemed to be absorbed in anything else but the atmosphere.
The reason, of course, for this collection of colossal amount of information every few hours lies in the fact that the various states of the weather all over this hemisphere are as intimately related as the pieces of a properly-arranged jigsaw puzzle No scientist can proceed intelligently to estimate the probability of sunshine and accompanying wind in one small section of the Dominion without knowing what is happening over most of the rest of the continent, on the oceans and in parts of the world which most of us have scarcely even heard of. The doings of the air in Iceland, for instance, may have a very definite effect on the apple orchards of the Annapolis Valley.
Indeed, before beginning the daily forecast of Canadian weather, it is necessary for meteorologists to consider minutely the reports from 230 different stations, only 48 of which, it may be noted, are either ir Canada or operated by the Canadian bureau. Many more stations, hundreds of them, report less frequently, but information from the 230 mentioned is practically essential if a satisfactory prediction is to be made.
The preparation of the forecast, more vulgarly known as “probs.”, is the chief task of the Dominion’s weather bureau, or any other weather bureau for that matter, but there seems to be more all-round misunderstanding and mystery about this routine performance than about the proper way of bringing up children. There really is very little mystery about it.
The weather bureau does not create the weather. It never has. It never expects to do it. It never even influences it in the slightest degree. Senseless as these statements may sound, there are still, as the correspondence files of newspapers show, many people over the age of nine who solemnly believe that the weather is at least partially affected by a group of government appointees.
Last fall a woman wrote to an eastern Ontario editor complaining bitterly about the weatherman’s lack of foresight in setting the date for the first frost. Her tomatoes had been ruined, and she suggested immediate dismissal. The fact that the frost had been accurately forecast meant nothing to her.
This spring, a citizen, annoyed at the late arrival of the birds, the green grass and the annual avalanche of nature poetry, notified his favorite newspaper by letter that he would vote against the weatherman at the next election unless the latter could guarantee that snow and sleet would henceforth disappear from
his district by a stated date. He must have been rom the U. S. But there are grounds for hope that this species of believer will soon be as rare as the bird of paradise in Greenland.
Secondly, there is not anywhere on the payroll of the Dominion Meteorological Service a gentleman who receives a salary because of his heaven-sent gift for prophecy. There is no bewhiskered individual who clambers upon the roof, sniffs the sky and exclaims: “Aha, west winds.” In the very nature of things, there has been no such person since the beginning of time.
Meterology, like any other science, is based on the premise that things do not happen by chance: that nature operates according to very definite and fixed laws; that weather, like other things, is subject to them. Just because man has not yet succeeded in putting down all these laws in black and white does not affect the truth of the underlying principle. A weather forecast, therefore, has not the remotest connection with the word, "guess,” nor is it in any way a prophecy. It is a carefully-calculated scientific statement of what is likely to happen, based on the information available at the moment.
There is one more popular misapprehension regarding weather forecasts which is quite the most widely-held of the lot. Many people incline to the idea that a weather bureau operates much like a series of train despatchers. Observer Jones in Saskatoon, for example, wires that a thunderstorm, style A, left his city at a quarter to four and was heading due east at the rate of thirty-two miles an hour when last seen. The weather bureau then clears for action and notifies neighboring cities and municipalities that a thunderstorm will pay them a flying visit at roughly such-and-such an hour. Very interesting, it is, but entirely incorrect.
One often hears easterners remark: “I see by the paper that there was a bad storm in Winnipeg yesterday. I suppose we’ll get it to-morrow.” There seems, indeed, to be a widespread hallucination that Canada’s weather is somewhat in the nature of a steady parade of wet, dry, stormy, windy and absolutely excellent periods, following each other steadily from west to east like the box-cars in a freight and occasionally reversing, evidently just for the sake of variety.
To knock this theory on the head, all that is needed is a synopsis of the weather of the winter just ended. Not since 1878 has the west enjoyed a winter even faintly approaching the last from the point of view of general mildness. But the eastern winter, on the other hand, was average, with sporadic bursts of severity. Western weather will only travel east when a considerable number of atmospheric factors combine to bring it.
How Forecasts Are Made
BUT to return to the forecasts themselves. The best way of learning, exactly what they are is to learn exactly how they are made. The process outlined below is gone through each day in Canada’s weather headquarters.
Sharp at eight a.m., special telegraph lines leading into the observatory commence to click, and for an hour and twenty minutes a steady flow of messages in code, one from each of the 230 stations previously mentioned, pours in, giving details of temperature, pressure, direction and force of wind, humidity and any other important weather data.
All the observations which come flooding in over the wires from points on the American continent, have been made at exactly the same moment—7.45 a.m. Toronto time, which is 8.45 a.m. in Sydney, N.S., and 4.45 a.m. on the Pacific coast.
The work of decoding the messages commences almost as soon as the wires open. When this is finished, the next step is the drawing of the isobars on a standard map, which is later filed away for reference. The isobars, as they appear to the naked eye of the layman, are harmlesslooking curves, but to the meteorologist, they are the key to the coming weather. They are the lines of equal pressure, and pressure, in turn, is simply the density of the atmosphere. Generally speaking, the weather is fine and clear when the pressure is high, but stormy and wet when it is low. Places of high and low pressure have very definite forms, with a very definite wind circulation about them.
Furthermore, if a line is drawn north and south through the area on the map where the pressure is lowest, it usually follows that the region immediately to the east of this line is due for warm, moist, cloudy and at times wet weather, while to the west, the weather is often very strong with a rapid drop in temperature.
At any rate, these isobars, showing as they do the areas of high and low pressure, are the basis of the forecasts. The chief forecaster studies the map when the process of plotting out the isobars is done and makes his predictions within a very few minutes.
In the Dominion’s central bureau, the forecasts are ready shortly after ten every morning. They usually cover a thirty-six hour period, though sometimes it is possible to judge accurately fortyeight hours in advance. Rarely, however, do they cover a longer period.
Weather for eight of the nine provinces is forecast in the Toronto observatory. British Columbia is handled separately by the station in Victoria.
Once the forecasts are ready, they are rushed to every telegraph station in the
Dominion and, through the usual channels to every newspaper in the country. Reports are also sent to large numbers of organizations and private individuals, boards of trade, railway superintendents, steamship companies, shippers, brokers and some agricultural groups.
As soon as the forecast is finished, too, a special press in the basement of the observatory commences to run off the daily weather map, the production and distribution of which is one of the service’s most valuable contributions.
No Sinecure Here
BUT this morning forecast is by no means the end of the day’s work. It seems to serve more as a setting-up exercise for the duties that remain. Before the weatherman winds up with a second forecast which is made at ten in the evening, he has weekly, monthly and yearly statistics of fifty different varieties to compile. He carries on reasearch into the odd angles of his profession, winds, rain, clouds, upper air, anything you care to mention. He has supplementary reports to consider from stations which report by wire for each forecast, and reports from the hundreds of stations which are heard from once, twice or less a week. He has specific information to furnish on all manner of things for all manner of people and hundreds of questions to answer, many of which, unfortunately, are foolish.
But long experience with foolish questions in wholesale lots has created an unusual attitude on the part of the Dominion Meteorological Service. Knowing the tremendous ramifications and technicalities of his own subject, the meteorologist realizes how easy it is for an average person to go astray and become ridiculous. He makes it a rule, therefore, never to ridicule an inquirer because his query may seem absurd.
When he receives a letter stating that the Sons and Daughters of Oskaloosa are anxious to hold a day of open-air feasting the following October, he merely replies courteously that it is impossible for him to supply the information they desire, which, perhaps, is whether the second Wednesday of the month will be free from rain and high winds. Letters of this type are more than numerous.
If, as happened a few months ago, a certain person swears that his farm was the scene of a shower of small fish resembling young sardines, the weatherman states simply that such an event is scientifically as probable as an avalanche of Confederate bills—but in much more dignified terms—and lets it go at that.
Data Are Invaluable
PREPARATION and preservation of the records which show the rainfall, wind and climate generally in all parts of the Dominion is a job at which the weatherman has been continuously occupied ever since the bureau was inaugurated— as complete a record as it is possible to have under existing conditions.
Aside from the fact thac it is important for the government and citizens of a country to be acquainted with the facts concerning the climate of their native land, these records can be of astounding value.
For example, take the case of the proposed and partially-completed Hudson's Bay Railway, which happens to be a blazing political topic. It is a project involving the expenditure of many millions of public moneys and its effectiveness, in large measure, depends on the usual weather in the upper reaches of the country and the average length of the season of navigation there.
In the offices of the Dominion Meteorological Service, there is a large store of accurate data, some of it recently compiled by official observers, and some dating back many years and obtained from the records of the Hudson's Bay Company or the diaries of exploring Jesuits.
No further explanation is needed. Very important, too, are the bureau’s records of day-to-day weather in specific localities. Suppose a settler is suing a railroad company for damages on the grounds that a spark from a locomotive set fire and destroyed valuable timber on his property. The court can learn from the bureau’s records whether the wind on that day and at the time mentioned was blowing in such a direction that the claim is probable. It can also discover whether the humidity was such that a fire would be likely to spread rapidly. The judge can base his finding on very definite scientific information.
Or suppose that a motorist involved in an accident bases his defense on the slippery condition of the pavements. It may be weeks or even months before the case reaches its final stages and the average person’s memory of average weather is short. But the bureau can produce incontrovertible evidence which will show whether the pavements were slippery on that date or whether they were not.
So much for the records. They are probably eight or nine hundred other ways in which they are of valuable assistance. Anyone can think of them.
Saving Life and Property
ONE of the most romantic of the bureau’s many tasks is its storm signal service. One hundred and ten stations, scattered along the shores of the Great Lakes and Canada’s two coast-lines, warn fishermen and mariners of the approach of dirty weather. That thesesignals and the warnings which are also broadcast from a hundred wireless stations cause an enormous annual saving in property and prevent serious loss of life, is too obvious to need any elaboration.
Of recent years, the bureau has commenced a multitude of special services. This summer sees the inauguration of a fire-ranger’s forecast. There is a peculiar state of the atmosphere known as “fireweather,” partly due to winds and partly to humidity. During weather of this sort, the peril of a small blaze developing into a conflagration is greatest.
It is quite impossible for an ordinary individual to tell when the hazards are worst. It does not follow that a very long spell of seemingly dry weather necessarily means great fire danger, nor do regular showers of rain always eliminate this peril. There is only one means of definitely ascertaining the exact condition, and that is through the use of scientific instruments.
All this summer, therefore, the heads of the fire-rangers protecting Canadian forests, will receive daily statements from the service. They will know when and where the greatest precautions should be taken, and also, from the summary of the winds which is also being furnished, they can decide without loss of time where rangers can be placed to the best possible advantage.
The fruit-spray forecast is another odd job for the weatherman which results in a great annual saving. It affects Nova Scotia and the Niagara Peninsula particularly, as well as British Columbia. The layman may not know that if fruit trees are sprayed in dry weather the result is absolutely nil. The farmer might just as well have poured his chemicals into a ditch and spent the time doing the Charleston The trees must be treated just as a wet spell is approaching and, with the help of the meteorologists, farmers are now advised, two or three days in advance, of coming dampness
For years, wholesale fruit dealers, brewers and shippers of perishable goods of any sort have made it a definite rule to consult the meteorologists at unsettled seasons before despatching goods. Carload after carload has been saved because the business man learned well in advance that an unexpected cold spell might be in the offing or that the thermometer might suddenly rise to unforeseen heights.
Weather Man a Business Aid
FORECASTS are required for a most overwhelming array of different purposes. One of the leading restaurants in a large Canadian city is notified of the approach of east winds and their probable duration. The restaurant in question is noted for its excellent coffee. Whenever an ease wind is blowing, the civic authorities there find it necessary to chlorinate the water, thus cutting off many million« of germs in their prime. But a tang of chlorine is no help to a cup of coffee, and the restaurant, warned in advance, secures a special supply of pure water from a source a considerable distance
away. Thus, with the aid of science, the breakfast drink is kept up to standard.
Shortly after the war, the meteorological service made a forecast for aviators which was concerned chiefly with wind direction, force and visibility. These have now been temporarily discontinued since commercial flying in Canada is negligible at the moment. Undoubtedly, however, the time will come when a daily prediction of this type will be needed and the weatherman is equipped and ready to deal with it when that day arrives.
It might be well to mention here, while talking of special forecasts, that the announcements, which appear from time to time, of possible radio forecasts which will tell whether reception is about to be good or bad, do not originate in the offices of the weatherman. On the word of the experts, a radio forecast is not yet even probable. Radio is still in its infancy, as its howls testify, and science will not be in a position to learn the facts about radio and the atmosphere until more is known about radio itself.
This catalogue of the weather bureau’s services could be continued on and on like an after-dinner speech and, like a performance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, be amusing, instructive and educational.
At the moment, for instance, a research worker, at the request of an insurance company, is investigating the matter of hail. An actuary of this concern, which carries a great deal of hail insurance, put forward the theory that there were definite hail areas scattered about the prairies which were more likely to be affected annually than others. So the meteorologists are now proceeding to test the statement.
Another investigator is busying himself with earthquakes. A special observer regularly takes the correct time with the aid of the stars. The bureau’s physicist, J. Patterson, recently concluded, in the public interest, an exhaustive treatise on the subject of so-called rain-makers. Mr. Patterson does not say that rain-makers are fakirs, because he is not that kind of a person. He simply states, that as far as creacing showers is concerned, it can't be done.
If anyone is still doubtful, however, he may be interested to learn that, to produce a four-inch rainfall over one hundred square miles, he must find some means of making the atmosphere yield up the same amount of heat as would be given off by the number of tons of coai required to heat eighty million eight-roomed houses of average construction for one cold winter. That seems to settle that matter.
Forecasts Eighty-eight Per Cent.
THESE assorted undertakings are just a few of the duties involved in being the country’s official weatherman. Weatherman, incidentally, is a term which is apt
to be misleading. The weatherman is a battalion of experts. Furthermore, it is possible to tell just how expert this battalion, is for the wins and losses, in the matter of predicting future weather, are as carefully tabulated as a baseball player’s batting average.
For the fiscal year just ended, the Dominion Meteorological Service’s forecasts were eighty-eight per cent, correct. In compiling this estimate, if the forecaster announced fair weather with veryslight west winds and the day in question dawned clear and fair but with very slight winds not from the west, he was credited with a fifty per cent, error. It is interesting to know that the weatherman is never totally wrong. There is no case of this kind anywhere on the records. But neither does the meteorologist claim that he is anything approaching infallible.
“Meteorology in Canada is not an exact science,” says F. O’Donnell, who has had twenty-five years’ experience in studying the Dominion’s atmosphere. “It cannot be. For one thing, there are vast areas to the north of us from which, since they are uninhabited, we can get no regular information. But just the same, they affect the weather to the south of them very considerably. Nor have we yet found it possible to make daily observations of the upper strata of air, as we do at points all over the earth’s surface. And this is an important factor in deciding what is to come in the way of weather.”
The efficiency of the service, then, taking all these things into consideration, is worthy of being termed remarkable. Once more, however, for the benefit of the doubting Thomases, it is well to note one way in which the casual observer of weather and weather reports may be led astray.
Many newspapers publish a singleword forecast at the top of their front page, defining the future state of the air as warm, clear, cloudy or something similarly simple. This brief synopsis is not the weatherman’s work, but is done in the newspaper office, where the regular forecast is boiled down to a couple of syllables. Any individual who can reduce several sentences to a solitary word, day in and day out, and do it perfectly, is a wizard. The number of wizards, even in newspaper offices, being strictly limited the abbreviated probs. are often quite different, in essence, from the official forecast.
Viewing the subject of meteorology in general, therefore, it seems that caution should be the watchword henceforth when discussing this topic. It might, indeed, be wise to preface all remarks with a careful reservation—if one’s reputation for honesty is to be preserved—as, for instance: "Speaking of the weather—and remember that I speak merely as a private citizen, registering my own personal views, unsupported by scientific data and the opinions of the experts—I think it looks like rain."