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Federation and MeteorologyBureau of Meteorology
Table of Contents

The Weather Prophets

The Charleville Rainmaker

Reading the Signs

Weather to Order

The Long-range Outlook



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Reading the Signs

'I am prompted by the futile forecasts of the present deluge to draw attention to the inadequacy (and often inaccuracy) of our weather forecasts', an annoyed reader wrote to the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald in 1946. Whether through lack of funding or incompetence, the letter argued, Bureau staff seemed incapable of reading the most basic weather signs: 'the portents of the present storm were clearly written in the sky on Saturday'.[9] The Bureau responded a few days later, dryly noting that storm warnings issued on the basis of 'portents' might cause 'unnecessary alarm or panic'. Moreover, it reassured the public that its forecasts were the work of a 'competent academic staff' drawing 'scientific deductions' from the available data.[10]

We all like to dabble in meteorology. Every day brings a new batch of predictions for us to test and discuss. We place our trust in science, but still we look to the sky, gathering our own observations, developing our own theories, offering our own forecasts—'It looks like rain', 'It's going to be a hot one'—each of us our own weather prophet.

Long before Europeans invaded the continent, Aboriginal people had learned to read nature for signs of change, developing a sophisticated understanding of the climatic cycles that shaped their lives.[11] European settlers found the seasons reversed and the signs obscure. Cook and Banks arrived at Botany Bay one rainy Autumn, but imagined themselves in the midst of a long dry season. Their optimism encouraged plans for colonisation, but left early settlers ill-prepared for the climatic hardships that followed.[12]

Gradually white Australians compiled their own catalogue of weather indicators, drawing on folklore, observation and fancy. In 1934, Alec Chisholm asked readers of the Argus 'what are the chief signs of rain in Australia?' and was inundated (!). 'Indeed', Chisholm wrote surveying the responses, 'I begin to wonder why Australia troubles to sustain weather bureaus when all her difficulties in point might be solved by going to the ant and the frog'.[13] Beyond the humour, however, lies a significant question, why should we put our faith in meteorologists (and not frogs)?

The development of meteorology in the twentieth century entailed dramatic improvements in both the range of observations available and the methods used for their analysis. But it also involved the establishment of meteorology as a discipline, as a 'science'. Technical and theoretical improvements had to be matched by new levels of training, by the enforcement of professional standards and accountability. Meteorologists had to demonstrate their expertise, and garner the trust of the community. The weather prophet had to make way for the scientist.

Accuracy provided a convenient, but contentious, index of meteorological achievement. Wragge, in his typically immodest way, claimed a remarkable '90 to 95 per cent of accuracy in forecasting'.[14] Such boasts, coupled with Wragge's practice of issuing forecasts for the whole of Australia, cast doubt on the authority and expertise of the other colonial meteorologists. Senator Higgs, speaking in support of Wragge in 1902, commented that 'although there are in the various States gentlemen who venture to make forecasts, . . . the question generally asked by the public regarding the weather is "What does Mr Wragge say?"'.[15] One of the aforementioned gentlemen, Sir Charles Todd, Government Astronomer of South Australia, took some satisfaction in compiling a score sheet tabling Wragge's predictions against his own. Over a period of twelve years, he calculated his accuracy at 83 per cent, with Wragge trailing on 62 per cent. The figures 'speak for themselves', Todd concluded.[16] However, the matter at issue was not just who was right, but who was deserving of public trust and support. Who were the experts?

In 1911, the Commonwealth Meteorologist H. A. Hunt proudly reported an increase in forecasting accuracy from 81.5 per cent in 1908, to 89.1 per cent in 1910.[17] Such figures not only provided evidence of the growing expertise of the recently-established Bureau, but also reflected its value to the community. A decade later Hunt noted that 'every important industry' looked to the Bureau for 'essential information'.[18] Accurate forecasts could even save lives—deaths in the WA pearling fleet had dropped from 200 in 1887 to 40 in 1910.[19] However, as Wragge wryly commented, the job of meteorologist was 'not one altogether to be envied': 'for if 99 forecasts out of a hundred turn out correctly, and the last one fails, don't they come down on us like a thousand of bricks'.[20]

When a deputation of fruitgrowers lobbied the Victorian Minister for Agriculture in 1935 for increased scientific assistance, the Minister took the opportunity to attack 'meteorological scientists' in 'our expensive Weather Bureau'.[21] The bureau had made a 'glaring error', he claimed, in failing to warn primary producers of an oncoming storm. 'The bureau officials are not qualified men', the Director of Agriculture Mr Mullett added helpfully, 'they have no qualifications as have doctors and others'. Mullet's criticism was not without substance, for at the time the Bureau's staff included only four science graduates out of a total of nearly ninety.[22] In the early years of the Bureau, meteorological workers were mostly trained on the job. It was only in the late 1930s that the Bureau instituted a specialised training program, and began systematically to recruit young science graduates.[23] The meaning of 'meteorologist' changed in response to new demands and new knowledge, bringing increased scientific credibility and reinforcing public trust. By 1953, John Hogan of the Bureau's Sydney office, could describe the meteorologist as 'a science graduate of a university, with major work in physics and mathematics; after which he had a year's training in theoretical and applied meteorology'.[24]

Changes in training were accompanied by improved methods of analysis and a greater emphasis on meteorological research. And yet, even as meteorology confirmed its 'scientific' status, its limits remained all too clear. Wragge blamed his very occasional predictive errors on the fact that meteorology 'is hardly yet what is termed "an exact science"'.[25] A 1934 article on 'why forecasts fail' made a similar admission, arguing that forecasts 'must be regarded merely as expressions of probability'.[26] For all its advances, meteorology seemed destined to remain a 'confused science' which, by the 1950s, had reached the 'limit of forecasting accuracy'.[27] Meteorologists were unable to indulge in the expansive rhetoric favoured by many scientists of alternate persuasions—their failures were just too obvious. Instead they faced the delicate task of managing public expectations, balancing the achievements of their science against the complexity of its subject matter.

The limitations of meteorology were revealed not just in the accuracy of forecasts, but in their length. For much of the twentieth century, the public clamoured for more from their meteorologists—what about next week, next month, next year? The prospect of seasonal or long-range predictions tantalised a nation dependent on rural industries. 'The economic possibilities of a reliable forecast of droughts and years of plenty . . . are tremendous', enthused Crosbie Morrison.[28] But the promise could not be easily delivered. 'All over the world, every effort is being made to find a means of making reliable seasonal forecasts', explained the Commonwealth Meteorologist in 1934, 'but so far without success'. The search for long-term climatic cycles 'has been like the search for the philosopher's stone', he added.[29]

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Wragge was at the forefront of this quest. In the 1890s, he began to study the supposed climatic effects of planetary movements and sunspot cycles, using his research as the basis for a series of long-range forecasts. [30] Wragge's methods were developed by Inigo Jones, who was to become one of Australia's best-known weather prophets.[31]

Sunspots were a popular and enduring candidate for those wishing to unravel the deeper mysteries of the weather.[32] But others, such as adventurer and amateur climatologist Sir Hubert Wilkins, emphasised the role of the Antarctic in determining Australian conditions. A feature article in the Argus in 1938 argued that a knowledge of both sunspot and Antarctic cycles would allow meteorologists 'to set a time-table for our weather', bringing Australia 'wealth and prosperity in boundless measure'. The current forecasting system was 'scientific as far as it goes', the article added, but 'a meteorologist who is not also a very advanced astronomer cannot predict weather correctly'.[33]

While maintaining an interest in the possibilities of seasonal forecasting, the Weather Bureau was skeptical of most supposed climatic cycles. H. A. Hunt admitted that some showed 'encouraging' coincidences, but there comes a point, he argued, 'where the bottom falls out of any theory'.[34] Summing up after several decades of research, E. W. Timcke concluded in 1953: 'No basis—scientific or otherwise—has yet been discovered on which forecasts for seasons in advance can be made with the required reliability and exactitude'. Moreover, he added, 'even with unlimited research, manpower and finance, there was no certainty that the solution to long-range forecasting would be found'.[35]

But hope was not easily quashed, and Timcke's pessimistic assessment was published alongside a commentary by Inigo Jones on planetary positions and the possibility of drought.[36] Critical scientific assessments did little to dull popular interest in the pronouncements of the weather prophet. Of course, the accuracy of many long-range predictions was difficult to prove one way or the other. 'The public', H. A. Hunt remarked, 'is always at the mercy of any theorist who chooses to quote statistics'.[37] Timcke enviously noted the public's tendency to forgive 'the independent forecaster', who was regarded 'somewhat like a jockey . . . cheered when he wins and hooted when he loses, with no hard feelings afterwards'.[38] Perhaps it was the lure of the long-shot?

Belief in the methods of Inigo Jones, and his successor Lennox Walker, was particularly strong amongst farmers and graziers, and political pressure was brought to bear on the Commonwealth for the support of their activities. Jones, the Senate was told in 1938, was a 'wonderful patriot', 'held in the highest esteem by the big man and also the small man on the land'.[39] And yet he had been met only with 'official scepticism' and 'hostility', his methods labeled 'unscientific' by some unknown bureaucratic functionary.[40] Perhaps the public's fondness for 'unorthodox' forecasters grew from the feeling that they were battlers, struggling not only with the mysteries of nature, but with an uncaring bureaucracy and a haughty scientific elite. Just as the Sydney Morning Herald's correspondent proffered his reading of the 'portents', we like to think that the signs are there for all to read. Despite the growing authority of meteorological science, we cling to our own ways of 'knowing' the weather—each our own weather prophet.

People in Bright Sparcs - Hogan, John; Hunt, Henry Ambrose ; Jones, Inigo Owen; Morrison, Philip Crosbie; Timcke, Edward Waldemar; Todd, Charles; Walker, Robert Lennox; Wragge, Clement Lindley

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