Which is older: rock ’n’roll or computerized weather forecasting?

Rock ’n’ roll is older, although not by much.

On May 6, 1955, a revolution that continues to this day began with little fanfare: the first daily weather forecasts made by a computer were issued. This was the result of nearly a year of collaborative effort between the United States Weather Bureau, the Air Force and the Navy in what was called the Joint Numerical Weather Prediction Unit, or JNWPU.

Formed in July 1954, the JNWPU was charged with applying emerging computer technology to the production of weather forecasts. The numerical forecasts issued during its first couple of years were not nearly as good as the forecasts being prepared manually with just pencil, paper and theory by experienced meteorologists at the Weather Bureau. Many academic meteorologists thought it was folly to pursue numerical weather prediction, and they were not afraid to express their opinions on the matter. But by 1958 the forecasts began to show steady improvement in skill.

Fueled by improved understanding of the atmosphere, better observations (many of which are supplied by satellites that did not exist in any form in 1955), and incredible increases in computer power, the science of numerical weather prediction has developed into an enterprise that now informs or supports a large part of the U.S. economy.

From the seven-day advance warning of Hurricane Sandy to our December blizzard this past year when schools were canceled before a single snowflake fell, we are indeed living in revolutionary times.

We should be proud of the fact that substantial contributions to that revolution have been made at UW-Madison for more than 60 years.

Category: Meteorology
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