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Only an April Fool would mess with the weather


THERE is one newspaper that will be forever famous in meteorological history: the Times of April 1, 1875. Victoria was on the throne, Disraeli in Downing Street, and Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd had come out the year before.

The first two pages were filled with births, deaths and advertisements; the news began on page three and went on and on at a rate of 9,000 words per page, everything in extremely small print. Sport was confined to horses and yachts.

The editorial comments ran to over 7,000 words (current Times leaders total under 1,000) and still had a column left on the same page for a court hearing. The last four pages were advertisements; you could hire a cook for £22 a year, all found.

It was after the police news and law notices that page 12 carried the only illustration: the first weather map to be published in any daily newspaper. It was less than half the size of a postcard, for the previous day, and right from the start it contained that metropolitan bias that we know so well in today’s media: 45° Dull, it says over London.

The only other messages were scattered across nearby seas. Not all that useful, but it was the beginning. Newspapers now have forecasts, but these are not much better because in the UK’s often rapidly changing weather they are out of date before you read them.

On April 1, 1960, exactly 85 years after that newspaper weather map, America launched the first meteorological satellite: TIROS 1 (Television InfraRed Observation Satellite). It circled the earth every 99 minutes about 400 miles up, and in its 78-day transmitting life it took 23,000 pictures which made weather folk think their forecasting problems would soon be over.

After its first two days it was clear this fantastic weather-watching device must be developed; it not only showed complex patterns of clouds that had never been seen before, but could watch over the vast areas of our planet which had few, if any, proper reporting stations – the oceans, for instance, which cover 43 per cent of the northern hemisphere and 57 per cent of the southern.

As the New York Times described it at the time, the satellite and its successors ‘hold the promise of illuminating vast areas of darkness in man’s understanding of the weather’.

It was on April 1, 2009 that the Met Office put out a news release to warn us to design our houses with global warming in mind. We should be ready, it said, for extreme summer heat, severe weather, summer and winter flooding. So presumably all new houses should have had special cold rooms and be built on stilts or the tops of hills.

Some scientists, concerned at the lack of political action on global warming, plan to release aerosols in the high atmosphere, thus reflecting some of the sun’s radiation and hopefully slowing down the earth’s rising temperature. This has happened before, in 1815.

On April 5 of that year Mount Tambora, a volcano on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa, began erupting, culminating five days later with the biggest explosion in recorded history.

The eruption, ten times more powerful than the more famous Krakatoa in 1883, threw out so much ash and dust into the atmosphere that 1816 is known in Europe as the Year Without a Summer. June, July and August were miserably cold and wet; the July average for England remains the lowest since records began in 1659. North America suffered equally with failed harvests, curious fogs, and unseasonal bitter cold. (You can read more here.)  

The 21st century way of dimming the sun is known as Solar Radiation Management. It raises some profound questions, the most obvious of which is: do we really want to conduct experiments on our precious atmosphere?

On a lighter note: On April 1, 1957, the BBC Panorama programme showed a short film narrated by Richard Dimbleby about the Swiss spaghetti harvest, with much associated detail. A lot of people wrote in to ask for advice about how to grow spaghetti trees. This is recognised as the first televised April Fool prank.

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Ivor Williams
Ivor Williams
Ivor Williams is a freelance writer and has been a fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society since 1984.

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